Having been adapted for the large and small screen many times, the material is familiar: The Clock family are “borrowers” – little people who inhabit the world beneath our floorboards, and in the gaps in our skirting boards, and who exist by borrowing what they need from the left-overs of the “human beans” who live in the house above. Pod (David Alcock) is the main provider, the one who ventures out into the house to ‘borrow’, and wife Homily (Julia Hills) is the consummate ‘make-do-and-mend’ home maker, while daughter Arrietty (Eleanor Yates) spends her life below the floor-boards yearning for adventure, and to explore the outside world that she can spy tantalisingly through a vent in the wall.
All is well until a new human bean arrives in the form of a boy (Oliver Hoare), sent home from India to convalesce after a bout of rheumatic fever, to the ‘care’ of cantankerous cook, Mrs Driver (Nicola Blackman) and gardener Crampfurl (Matt Devereaux). On her maiden expedition out into the house, Arrietty is spotted by the boy, and they strike up an unlikely friendship. Unfortunately the boy’s inquisitive but well-meaning nature results in the Clock’s home being discovered and they have to run for their lives into the outside world, in search of lost family and a new home.
Although slightly let down by a sometimes plodding script, the cast excel in their roles: Eleanor Yates’ Arrietty is gloriously naïve, wistful and feisty in turns, and seems ideally suited to this kind of theatre; David Alcock and Julia Hills make a great paring, with tangible tenderness between them; the always superb Nicola Blackman plays the ‘panto villain’ Mrs Driver with great gusto and humour, and Oliver Hoare (in the dual roles of ‘The Boy’ and Spiller) steals the show with the biggest laughs and a great comic performance.
The undoubted star of this show however is the staging itself. In an inspiring collaboration of witty direction (by Patrick Sandford) and imaginative settings (by designer Fabrice Serafino) the two worlds - of the tiny borrowers and the giant humans - leap magically from the pages of Norton’s books onto the stage. In the first half, set in the house, a huge hinged trap door rises periodically from the floor of the stage to reveal the borrowers home underneath. When the little folk interact with the ‘human beans’ perspective is neatly switched from one to the other, using huge pajama-clad legs suspended from the flies and enormous props, and tiny finger puppets sticking up through floor-boards. The ingenuity of these effects, though difficult to do justice to in words alone, draws gasps of delight from the audience. Most effective is a hugely inventive sequence where the boy takes to the floor boards with a screw driver in an attempt to locate and uncover the borrowers home, while on the other side of the stage you see the full-size borrowers cowering below with an enormous screw driver poking menacingly through their ceiling.
A Nuffield Christmas show would not be complete without a nod to the more traditional yuletide entertainment, and there is a nice sequence where children are invited up from the audience to help Homily make good their new home (in an old boot!) There is the obligatory happy ending and some seasonal songs to round things off nicely and send people home with a festive glow.
The Borrowers plays at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton until January 8.