Mary Norton / Charles Way
From 25 November 2016 to 31 December 2016
Review by Othniel Smith
This year’s main stage Christmas offering at The Sherman is Charles Way’s version of Mary Norton’s much-loved (and much adapted) tale, originally produced in 1999, and frequently performed in the interim.
Mary Norton’s series of novels, the first published in 1952, have been interpreted as a portrait of Britain under the strictures of post-war austerity, not to mention the class system; with its plucky little people making the best of scraps thrown from the big table. This production wears any such topicality lightly, however.
Our heroes are the tiny Clock family, who lead a relatively comfortable life underneath the floorboards of a large country house, “borrowing” and adapting discarded and broken items, whilst attempting to keep their existence a secret from the easily spooked “human beans”. Inevitably, however, they are discovered, which is when the story really begins.
Unavoidably, it is Hayley Grindle’s witty set which plays the starring role. In act 1, the Clocks’ cosy under-floor home is playfully recreated, with its over-sized, repurposed matches, scissors, thimbles etc; and the huge boot which appears in act 2 prompted audience “oohs” on the night I attended.
Keiron Self does a reliably likeable comic turn as Pod, the intrepid father of the family, who, after many years of successful foraging in secret, is spotted by the Boy of the house. Cait Davis is Homily, his stern but loving wife, who has good reason to worry that their discovery will be disruptive to their lives.
Their family is completed by Kezrena James as their spirited daughter Arietty, her adventurousness doing much to drive the plot forward. The focus of the first act is her developing friendship with the Boy, played by Huw Blainey, who is sickly and lonely, having recently arrived from India; he is intrigued, rather than alarmed by the little people.
Scary housekeeper Mrs Driver, played by Harvey Virdi, however, is considerably less indulgent, and it is largely through her actions, and those of the more ambivalent gardener Crampfurl, played by Joseph Tweedale, that the Clock family is forced to flee.
Consequently, act 2 is incident-packed, taking in an encounter with a hungry crow, a duel with a wasp (Virdi) and the appearance of a crowd-pleasingly camp cricket (Blainey again). The family are assisted by the comically feral (and unhygienic) Spiller (Tweedale), the first Borrower outside her immediate family that Arietty has ever encountered.
Director Amy Leach handles the size differential between Borrowers and Human Beans cleverly, with the help of a split-level stage, clever use of props and lighting (designed by James Whiteside) and, sparingly but effectively, a video backdrop. I found the occasional use of puppets somewhat distracting through.
As is now traditional at the Sherman, the music is played on-stage, this time round by composer Dom Coyote, with cast members (primarily Blainey and Tweedale) a part of the ensemble; his score is charmingly bucolic in tone, and occasionally reminiscent of vintage Oliver Postgate children’s TV series. Coyote also comes centre-stage to play a cheeky-chappie Romany who assists the Boy when he comes in search of the Clocks.
Way’s script is heavy on plot, but also provides much for the actors to play with, particularly James as the heroine, both reflective and hungry for experience, and Self’s Pod, painfully aware that his days of daredevilry may be coming to an end.
Crucially, the largely youthful press night audience were amused and engaged throughout. And there is even a hint of festive snow. A highly enjoyable two-hour adventure.