The Borrowers

Mary Orton, adapted and directed by Theresa Heskins
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Michael Hugo (Spiller), Shelley Atkinson (Homily), Vanessa Schofield (Arrietty) and Nicholas Tizzard (Pod) Credit: Andrew Billington
Vanessa Schofield (Arrietty) and Michael Hugo (Spiller) Credit: Andrew Billington

Christmas at the New Vic is usually a special time. The north Staffordshire venue chooses shows which are an alternative to the traditional panto that can be seen at the Regent Theatre in nearby Stoke and invariably they are a success.

Over the past few years audiences have been treated to adaptations by artistic director Theresa Heskins of such diverse productions as C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Each year some people express doubts about whether the theatre can pull off another ambitious undertaking. Twelve months ago, for instance, the New Vic had to convince sceptics that it had not bitten off more than it could chew with Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Now the theatre-in-the-round is taking a giant leap into the unknown by putting onto the stage Mary Norton’s tale about the Clock family who are only six inches tall. But Theresa Heskins has her feet firmly on the floor and comes up with another memorable show.

Head of design Lis Evans and head of workshop Laura Clarkson were given the task of bringing to life Heskins’s ideas for The Borrowers. They place three miniature sets in alcoves around the stage while enormous props signify the problems the small people face living in the land of the giants. There is a huge box of matches, big cotton reels and knitting needles and a massive boot which becomes the family’s home.

Occasionally, actors use miniature puppets of themselves to indicate the difference in size between the Clock family and the normal-sized people who live “upstairs” in the same house. The concept may seem strange but even very young children seemed to grasp it.

In the New Vic’s customary inventive style, a cheese grater ingeniously turns into a pair of gates while a cutlery tray serves as a boat, with the Clocks using a key and a wooden spoon for paddles.

However, The Borrowers is not simply about clever staging. An ensemble cast of 11 professionals, most of them actor-musicians, and eight young company members throw themselves totally and enthusiastically into the production.

It might be unfair to single out anyone for special mention, although I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Tizzard’s portrayal of Pod, the father always concerned about the welfare of his family, Vanessa Schofield’s depiction of daughter Arrietty who wants to see what life is like in the big, wide world and Michael Hugo’s performance as Spiller, which shows he is remarkably versatile.

This was the first time I was able to take my grandchildren to a festive production. I had reservations that they might be too young to understand The Borrowers—but they were enraptured throughout. Five-year-old Toby thought the best section was when Spiller performed an acrobatic climb up a vine-like rope while three-year-old Holly enjoyed the whole show.

The Borrowers ends with the Clocks finally moving into a new home in a snow-covered model village. The attention to detail is yet another reason why the show is a success.

Some of the songs might not be to everyone’s taste; despite that there is a certain attractiveness to them even though the tunes might not be memorable.

The Borrowers might seem an odd choice for a Christmas production but it will surely captivate theatregoers of all ages. It truly is magical.

Reviewer: Steve Orme