Theatrical Imagination

The classic children’s fantasy The Borrowers opens on the stage in Keswick
November 30, 2022

Suspending disbelief is the key to good theatre. Here at Theatre by the Lake we once saw a well-built, fully-grown man with a beard play the part of the boy, Roger, in a musical version of Swallows and Amazons. It was just a matter of minutes before his size and facial hair were no longer relevant.

The trick is much more difficult in The Borrowers, the adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic children’s fantasy story which is the Christmas production here in Keswick. Here we have to imagine that the actors on stage are actually only five inches tall.

It’s achieved in this charming production, adapted for the stage by Theresa Heskins, and directed by Zoe Waterman, by really clever set design from Bronia Housman, some delightfully distracting original music and, in the second half, whimsical puppetry courtesy of Marc Parrett. The props include tiny, dolls’ house size chairs, fireplaces, scissors, which are passed ingeniously (through a hole in the floorboards) to become giant items in the world of the Borrowers.

They are a quirky miniature race who live hidden in other people’s homes, under floors, behind skirting boards and even – when emigrating to escape danger – in an old boot on a riverbank. The ones we meet here are the Clock family: headstrong Arriety (Courtney George), her resourceful dad Pod (Michael Blair) and her fretful and anxious mother Homily (Katherine Toy).

They ‘borrow’ the leftovers and the items discarded by the wasteful ‘human beans’ who live above and around them, so while Norton's own inspiration came from the make-do-and-mend ethos of the post-war years, the Borrowers themselves are now seen as early practitioners of re-cycling and up-cycling. Among their reclaimed treasures are a single sugar cube, and a half eaten digestive biscuit, which is clearly going to provide meals for several weeks.

There have been a number of stage versions, and a film which starred, among others, Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie, Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax, and was nominated for a BAFTA award. This production brings out the strangeness, the weirdness of the concept, with many disturbing and unsettling moments among the fantasy and the humour. There’s an archetypal wicked housekeeper (Sarah Groarke) and her male counterpart Crampfurl (Owen Aaronovitch) who are the enemies of the tiny creatures; and then their friends, the lonely boy (played here with great spirit by Tonny Shim) and Spiller, another Borrower who comes to their rescue and paddles them down the river to safety in an empty sardine tin.

The Borrowers won the 1952 Library Association Carnegie Medal, and in the 70th anniversary celebration of the medal in 2007 it was named one of the top ten medal-winning works. Is it still read today? The show certainly attracted a splendid young cast of local children as dancers, and the youngsters in the audience were entranced by the acrobatics, the dare-devil climbs up the ingenuous set, and the magnificent insect puppets. It’s also marvellous to see the cast as performing troubadours, playing and singing as part of the production, with an instrumental range from accordion to cello, trumpet and guitar.  But perhaps the best moment for all, young and old alike, came towards the end of the second half, when the Borrowers’ bubble bath overflowed. We won’t spoil the surprise; you’ll have to go and see for yourselves.

The Borrowers runs at Theatre by the Lake until January 14. Details and tickets HERE

Photos: Helen Murray