Review by Harry Bower
Seven years ago Bram Davidovich was a youth worker with homeless people, and decided to write a play about the growing problem of youth homelessness around England. That play, a two-hander, opened at VAULT Festival this week.
Rat King is set in Hackney, London, and tells the story of an (at first-glance) unlikely encounter, a privileged and well-off though suffering Kelly, and runaway homeless lad, Jack. The pair could not be more different in their current landscapes, and yet on so many levels they are alike. Kelly feels trapped by circumstance. She is medicated and hamstrung in her ambition by her overbearing and worried parents, and so decides to run away from home. Jack left home too, when his mum became embroiled in an abusive relationship, and he hasn’t been back since, now a borderline alcoholic and expert dumpster-diver.
These two backgrounds might seem like they have nothing in common. But in Rat King the parallels are exposed bare for all to see. And it is these parallels in contrast with more obvious differences which act as the backbone of the show.
The play begins with a chalk line drawn on the floor in the centre of the stage. Both metaphorically and literally this line demarks the start of both origin tales as Kelly and Jack take turns addressing the audience directly, introducing themselves as our protagonists. Kelly takes the lead in opening up about that night, and before we know it we are watching her pack her bag and sneak out under the cover of darkness. The line in the middle of the floor slowly becomes messier and more blurred as the show goes on and the character’s narratives intertwine.
When Jack saves her from being mugged or worse, a whirlwind of an evening begins. Both characters have a depth to them which suggests they have real-life inspiration beyond their names. As they have been drawn as two extremes of the societal class scale there is an extra layer of complexity to each, and their take on society.
Together they drink hooch, make art, and teach each other how to act in their world – for example Jack showing Kelly how to ‘talk roadman’, and Kelly doing the reverse with ‘proper’ language. This is one of many direct and blunt ways in which the show reveals its class-difference angle to the audience; there is not a great deal left to interpretation.
We all know that what happens in a drunken night rarely lasts until morning, and so the case is in Rat King. As it steams to a head Kelly and Jack both return to their old lives, but are they changed people at their core? The ending isn’t revolutionary but does tie things up nicely if you’re someone who doesn’t deal well with loose ends.
This play is a smart and touching story illustrating simultaneously how easy it is for young people to find themselves homeless, and how difficult it can be to break out of that cycle. More specifically though, it is about hope, friendship, and empathy. I was struck throughout by the frequent mistrust and selfish behaviour demonstrated by both Kelly and Jack in the first half of the show, and how this is overcome is key to the crescendo which leads to the final scenes thus completing each character’s development arc.
Kelly is played by Georgina Tack and is, to begin with, very likable. Jack, played by Jacob Wayne-O’Neill, is the opposite. By the end of the play this has balanced out, and that is testament to the performances of both. The pair portray characters with serious flaws and whom are changed significantly by the presence of the other. In this regard the chemistry between Tack and Wayne-O’Neill is palpable. The lingering looks, aggression-fuelled scenes, the glint in the eyes of both when doing something appropriately creative, and the passionate moments in the plot all contribute to a believable and authentic relationship being built on-stage in front of our eyes. These are intelligent and refined performances full of emotion.
Special mention here must go to composer Sam Hall who created the original soundtrack for Rat King. It is brilliant, all the way through - a consistent and imaginative soundtrack to match the dramatic story as it unfolds. I was particularly impressed by the timing of the delivery with elements of the background music; it was tight and must have taken significant consideration.
The play may not be perfect - The pacing is awkward toward the end, some slightly dodgy physical theatre is added to the lack of nuance in places, and the opening fifteen minutes or so don’t make it all that easy to settle into the narrative. However overall, the writing is excellent. The book has a poetic quality to it in some scenes, and in others is satisfyingly frank and unequivocal. The dialogue is convincing and most of the hour-long run time flies by. There is a pragmatic approach taken to most of the dialogue which is refreshing and true-to-life.
Rat King offers a unique and underrepresented voice on the homelessness problem engulfing England’s young communities. A 2023 figure by Centrepoint suggests 59% of the 122,000 16-24 year olds either homeless or at risk of homelessness were not prevented or dealt with successfully. That is a shocking figure, and when dramatised on-stage stories like that of Jack and Kelly seem all the more relatable. Fundamentally the play offers an optimistic take on the lives and circumstances of those who are homeless. It reminds us that everyone is susceptible to misfortune and that everyone has strength in creativity. We all deserve to be treated as more than our housing situation labels us as. We all deserve to have hope, and someone who believes in us. Rat King is thoughtful and thought-provoking, equally as powerful as it is entertaining.
Rat King runs at VAULT Festival until Sunday 05 March 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/rat-king/.
For future information about the show and where it may play next, visit https://twitter.com/KryptonitePlays.