This is a charming, delightful and pretty perfect Christmas play – and yet the ‘C’ word is barely mentioned!
Mary Norton’s 1950s stories are well know and much loved, so we do tend to know what’s coming. But the really big question is ‘how’ is it going to come?
Flicking through the ‘Spotlight’ guide to available actors reveals a serious shortage of performers under 6 inches tall. Most of the cast find themselves playing Borrowers and therefore have to be ‘tiny’… which means manufacturing giant puppets to portray the Human Beings…doesn’t it?
But that obvious solution seriously underestimates the imagination of Theresa Heskins and her crafty production team. If you think about it (and they clearly have; deeply) The Borrowers only have to be small when they are actually sharing the stage with people our size. At which point, the Borrowers borrow tiny rag doll versions of themselves for the Humans to toy with. So, when Pod makes his spectacular opening entrance – vertically, from the rafters – he’s full sized. But when the Boy picks him up, Pod swings dangerously from his rope whilst the ladf dangles a vulnerable rag doll from his fingertips. Simples.
The magic moments of the show are all the clever variations on the above (which I won’t reveal) and the joyous introduction of increasingly inventive outsized household props; lovingly created with intricate detail and intrinsic humour.
It’s a dream debut for Vanessa Schofield as the rebellious, adventurous Arrietty; her flaming red pigtails flying in defiance at being cooped up below the floorboards. Her’s is the loss-of-innocence story at the heart of the tale, which can’t fail to touch child and adult alike. For her quest to discover if her relation Eggletina really has suffered a feline fate, she’s equipped with a Tomboy presence, a beautiful soprano voice and more than enough heart and soul to carry the show all the way.
But she doesn’t have to, because she’s backed to the hilt by Nicholas Tizzard as the father forced into ever more high-risk borrowing, and Stella Atkinson (pictured) as her mithering mother.
Her meetings with men are tremendous turning points. First comes her trusting friendship with the human Boy (Huw Blainey) which warms the cockles, but leads to danger. After the interval she flirts charmingly with Dreadful Spiller, played by Michael Hugo with carefully calculated casualness….even when he’s wrestling with a giant insect or hanging helplessly in mid-air.
When you are only half a foot tall, water can be a dangerous thing. Raindrops explode all over the stage like landmines – or at least you find yourself believing they do – and the famous escape down the plughole is so well imagined and executed, it drew spontaneous applause.
Norton’s stories abound with allegories. The first book was published alongside Anne Frank’s Diary and the parallels are plain. But when The Borrowers escape to the country, I found myself thinking of Colditz, Kenneth Grahame’s Wild Wood and the plight of newly discovered Amazon natives. It is a very moral tale…laced with plenty of seriously full-sized, dramatic tension.
Composer James Atherton has come up with a lively Budapest Café Orchestra/ Klezmer score for the cast and young company to sing and dance to. And the lovely touches are legion. Heskins has the human baddies return in the second half as a sinister crow. As summer fades, giant autumn leaves float down into the audience and, as a parting gift, we’re invited down onto the stage to examine the final Lilliputian Christmas tableaux.
Theresa Heskins courageously set herself an exacting challenge this year when she announced she was ‘doing’ The Borrowers …without a word written or a design concept determined. But, as usual, the New Vic has pulled it off with aplomb to spare. I was entranced.
Photo : Andrew Billington
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