This year, Sherman Theatre’s highly anticipated Christmas show is Mary Norton’s classic tale, The Borrowers. Whilst Charles Way’s adaptation certainly captures the spirit of the season with its emphasis on the importance of family, pantoesque characterisation and sprinkling of snow, it lacks the out and out enchantment of previous Sherman Christmas productions.
Act One is too weighed down in accentuating the dreary, minuscule world of the youngest Borrower, Arrietty Clock (Kezrena James), hemmed in by her close-minded parents, resulting in a first half a little too full of doom and gloom. This is accentuated by the far superior second act which almost feels like a different production by contrast; Act Two is vibrant and playful, with myriad moments of comedic genius (Huw Blainey as a cricket is by far the best animal interpretation I have ever seen – hilarious in a way that simply has to be seen, rather than described). Where Cait Davis’ portrayal of mother, Homily Clock, as a weeping, wailing, catastrophist, hopeless without her husband, tipped to irritating in its archaic stereotyping in Act One, the same qualities are transformed into comical and endearing characteristics in the second act, with other characters undergoing similar metamorphoses. Whilst some aspects of this are inevitably driven by the trajectory of the story line as the Borrowers’ world and perspectives widen, some of this later exuberance could have been incorporated into the performance much earlier to create magic right from the outset.
The true hero of the production is the staging and design which is ingenious and brings the Borrowers’ world to life. Beautiful sets full of creative props define the performance, cleverly mastering the potentially troublesome transitions between the normal-sized world upstairs and the minuscule version below floor. Tiny trapdoors, prised up floorboards, puppet replicas of the actors and different sized versions of the same prop are all used to create the charmingly realistic world of The Borrowers.
The production has an interesting mismatch between the exaggerated acting aimed at the children, and Dom Coyote’s mature musical score. In place of the traditional musical numbers, when not on stage, the cast take turns to form a live band, creating a largely instrumental soundtrack with a folky acoustic, becoming almost tribal during the climactic moments – usually caused by the formidable Mrs Driver. Harvey Virdi is spectacular in her role of vicious, intolerant tyrant, playing the part of comical villain to perfection, but with a deliciously dark edge.
Most of the key themes spring from the ongoing battle between Arrietty and her father Pod (Keiron Self); Arrietty longs for freedom and independence whilst Pod is reluctant to embrace change or relinquish control over his daughter’s sheltered life. This familiar tug of war between father and daughter is not confined to familial disputes, but represents a recognisable trend in the differences between generations, with millennials constantly eager for the next big thing to hit.
Despite their trials and tribulations, the Borrowers never stop struggling against the prejudice and adversity that faces them, ultimately succeeding in bringing down the “human bean” who drove them from their home. The Borrowers may not have provided the full-on escapism of previous Christmas productions but, particularly in light of the result of the recent American election, it contains an important and hope-filled message, for at its heart is the reminder that it is possible for the little people to triumph.