Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Borrowers

Sherman Theatre Company , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , December-21-03
The Borrowers by Sherman Theatre Company What do you get when you send an adult to review a children’s show ?

Usually boredom. Maybe a patronising attitude of grown-up superiority. Probably some desperate temporary regression technique in an attempt to recapture the innocence of childhood.

What you don’t expect is to see apiece of theatre that you know speaks to you in a totally different way than it does to its target audience.

Charles Way’s adaptation of The Borrowers (or rather the first two books of the series) is such a revelation. Reinforced by a sharp, uncompromising direction by Phil Clark this is a multilayered theatrical delight, a constantly stimulating series of allegories that could remind you of Ionesco, Kafka, Pinter or a host of modern (and postmodern) writers who have explored the human predicaments of the last hundred years.

And at the same time it seems to work perfectly well for younger audiences. In fact I suspect that sub-teens, adolescents and adults (and we were all in the Sherman audience when I saw it) can all get different things from this show.

I admit the original books, by Mary Norton, passed me by, so I don’t know if those Fifties and Sixties children’s classics were as remarkable as Charlie Way has made them – but the Sherman production certainly has a theatricality absent from the tv version.

Here the Clock family of Borrowing folk is dominated by the 14-year old daughter Arietty (played marvellously by the underrated Lucy Rivers) and on one level this is about her sexual awakening, the family’s escape from the dusty underground confines of Mrs Driver’s household a metaphor for her emergence into the adult world.

But that first act of living beneath the floorboards is itself replete with connotations: not just confinement but ignorance, denial of freedom, conformity. It is Ann Frank meets Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It is a story of stifled personalities and oppressed nations . It is repressed consciousness and enforced servitude. It is an internalised reality and an unattainable outside world. And more.

Oh, and it’s the story of a group of six-inch high people who scrabble a living by appropriating the cast-offs of the giants who live in the world above – bristles from a doormat becoming a sweeping brush, half a broken scissors a heavy weapon, a piece of blotting paper a front-room carpet – but whose routine existence is disrupted by the well-meaning friendliness of a boy “human bean” who inadvertently exposes their secret existence.

They are forced to escape to what could either be a rural idyll or a frightening and unfamiliar natural world. They become displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, living in a discarded boot. Arietty meets Spiller, a wild boy, and you can almost hear the stirrings in the loins. Mrs Clock, Homily, has to learn to live what she sees as a less privileged lifestyle. Dad, Pod, has to cope with the ageing process.

It’s children’s theatre, it’s a Christmas show, so it has to end happily of course – but the neat tying-up of loose ends is a convention you feel is ironically adopted.

This is a show that is just brimful of imagination and theatrical accomplishment – from the techniques to represent the different worlds of Borrowers and humans (which I won’t spoil by describing) to the marvellous music by Paul Gardner and played by the excellent cast. Sean Crowley’s set and Ceri James’s lighting design are simply stunning and everyone from props to puppet-makers deserve credits.

A classic piece of young people’s theatre. And that very rare thing, a show for all the family

Reviewed by: David Adams

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