Valiant intentions unfortunately go amiss in Rat King, a piece which follows the crossroads of a meeting between a Middle Class runaway and a young Homeless man who has been on the streets for years. While a raw and striking characterisation from Jacob Wayne-O’Neill as Jacko offers some fervour, the piece’s narrative structure takes a disappointingly infantile turn and posits the precarity of homelessness in an unusual manner. All in all, it feels as though Kryptonite Theatre Company may need to take a look at the script and story to see how they can ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ the important underlying message of this piece, which was born in experiences from Writer Bram Davidovich’s time as a social worker. In between its pitfalls, Rat King takes an unembellished and in-depth look at the experiences of its stratified characters, but unfortunately to little end.
Jacko’s life on the street is marred by systemic and repeated stories among those who find themselves living on the streets – substance abuse, sleeping on the couches of questionable people, trouble with the law. He finds solace and sanctuary in an abandoned house/factory in Lee Valley Park, where he soon bumps into the angsty, priviliged Kelly, played by Georgina Tack. The duo make for an odd pairing – but by nurturing Jacko’s passion for art, Kelly is able to unlock a glimmer of hope in his future. In contrast, Jacko finds Kelly’s condescending attitude towards him and his circumstances patronising. He spends time with her to unravel her relationships with her parents that caused her to run away from home and find herself temporarily on the streets.
The wider plot, as summarised, does not make for a bad concept in exploring the richness in difference of class and circumstance. Disappointingly, Rat King takes an unaimingly linear go at transferring this concept into a story. The storyline feels as though it was geared towards young people, and to an adult audience comes across too childish to remain engaging. The story essentially follows the pair into a bad part of town, then to an abandoned house, then to an abandoned factory, and then back home. The story hits clichéd beat after beat, with little time to unpack either character to a sufficient level. Instead, the piece pulls focus onto Jacko’s survival skills and romance, followed by fall-out. The lack of detail in Jacko and Kelly’s lives, mixed with the over-sentimental dialogue, offers us no way into the story.
I have questions leaving the piece over the representation of homelessness. It’s certainly not intentionally disparaging, but the way that the script highlights Jacko’s survival skills in place of his personhood gives the whole thing an oddly fantastical air, more akin to Bridge to Terabithia than something that tackles homelessness in a nuanced and subjective light. I left the theatre not knowing what the piece has to say about homelessness or class disparity. I appreciate that the origins of this show lie in experience, but translating that experience to stage in a way that expresses onto the audience is a difficult job. It feels as though this piece needed a few more drafts before it got to the rehearsal room to get to the heart of the experience it so valiantly and rightfully seeks to explore. As a piece to tour schools, however, I think this could do rather well if it shifts a bit more focus onto what it has to tell the audience about the strata of its cental characters’ experiences.
The performers do the best with what they have, and this is a challenging subject to lift up a new perspective within. Jacob Wayne-O’Neill has clearly worked hard on his East London drawl, his slurred speech evidently showing his time on the streets has left its’ marks on Jacko. Georgina Tack’s Kelly is frustratingly fizzling with teenage angst, and she does well to show a character that is at loggerheads with her own identity. We don’t feel as though Kelly has really learnt her lesson in the closing moments of the play, and really for both in the pair it seems as though life goes back to what it was before, with some minor lifestyle changes not really offering the pay-off of a sixty minute narrative arc.
I’m glad that Kryptonite Theatre Company came to put this show on, and give endless kudos for platforming class disparity as a narrative genre, but this one needs to go back to its’ roots to find what it is missing.
Recommended Drink: Whatever you do, don’t try Jacko’s 80% bathtub spirits.
Performances of Rat King have now concluded at VAULT Festival. Keep up with the company on social media for future showings.