New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 29th November, 2014
Artistic Director Theresa Heskins is not shy of setting herself challenges. Following last year’s triumphant 101 Dalmatians, she has raided the bookshelf of childhood once again, turning her attention and invention to Mary Norton’s classic novels – a story I remember dimly but fondly from back when I was *this tall*.
It begins with Pod (Nicholas Tizzard) dropping in, like a spider, or like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. He is ‘borrowing’, a euphemism for stealing items to take back to his little family under the floorboards. Within minutes, the conventions of the production are laid bare. Ingenious dual-staging using puppetry and miniatures shows us, like a split-screen, both the ‘human bean’ sized world and the Borrowers’ scaled-up home. Heskins’s imaginative staging is more than ably supported by the work of the theatre’s own workshop. Laura Clarkson’s set is the star of the show, and with every scene there is a more marvellous prop. A cheese grater is greater than a bed; an enormous boot splits open so we may see the family in their new home… They are ousted from their big house by the villainous and horrible Mrs Driver – a larger than life performance from Polly Lister, summoning a cat and a rat-catcher to rid the house of people she regards as vermin.
And here is where the show points out something I as a little boy did not realise. There are parallels here with the treatment of the Jews prior to and during the Second World War. The Borrowers’ neighbours and relatives are all gone but no one is sure where. Are they still alive? Have they been eaten? The point is underscored, literally, by an original score by musical director James Atherton, who uses more than a hint of ‘Jewishness’ in the music, played live by the composer himself, with the accompaniment of various cast members.
The story puts us very much on the side of the underdog and the oppressed. The best side to be on given the current political climate. It’s a chilling reminder and, sadly, one that is still needed in this time of increasing intolerance and inequality. The Borrowers represent anyone on the fringes of society, the dispossessed and the disappeared. One can all too easily imagine a post-UKIP, apocalyptic society where ‘others’ are hounded out of their homes.
But hey, don’t let that bring you down. This is a highly enjoyable fantasy adventure that evokes a sense of wonder in terms of content and form. At the heart of the ensemble is Vanessa Schofield’s Arrietty, a wide-eyed and inquisitive young girl, who yearns to see the world beyond the floorboards. Schofield embodies youthful enthusiasm and curiosity – no more so than when she teams up with Spiller, an almost feral Borrower, played by man of rubber, the always excellent Michael Hugo. Tizzard’s pragmatic Pod is married to Homily (Shelley Atkinson) who provides many of the laughs with her ‘kvetching’, you might call it. What comes across is the humanity of these tiny characters, the love and warmth of the family unit, striving to survive and to stay together despite terrible hardships and grave danger: there is a tense encounter with a humongous bird, for example, and when you see the tiny puppets walking across the vast expanse of the open stage, you see how vulnerable they are and how, like animals, they spend most of their lives in a state of fear and the struggle for survival – and you wonder how you yourself might cope if all the comforts and trappings of civilisation, hearth and home were stripped away.
Thought-provoking, thrilling and heart-warming, The Borrowers is a timely assertion of the humanity we have in common with everyone in society. And that’s a Christmas message I can get behind.