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Fun for all Human Beans

The Borrowers at The Watermill is beautiful and bonkers whether you're big or small.

Clock watching: Homily (Charlotte Workman), Pod (Matthew Romain) and Arrietty (Nenda Neurer)

*Christmas klaxon* First the John Lewis ad and now the first festive show. I took the youngest Mudlet (ice cream and a shared big bag of Minstrels guaranteed) to see the very first performance of The Borrowers at The Watermill in Newbury. It’s one of the prettiest theatres in Berkshire, so it is always a special trip – even in the November rain.

The Crimbo theatre season is often characterised by razzamatazz, greasepaint and drag acts, but The Watermill Theatre is well known for bucking the trend and always puts on magical bookish stage adaptation. This year, Mary Norton’s famous tale’s been thrust into the spotlight.

Can’t remember the story? To be fair, I had to refresh my memory – it was published in 1952 and it’s not one that made it onto the Muddy bookshelves. The Borrowers are tiny people who live happily under the floorboards of a huge house before they’re discovered by ‘Human Beans’ and driven out by the evil Mrs Driver. In search of a new home, they must face new dangers as they trek across the countryside. There’s also the mysterious ‘Spiller’and their long lost relatives to find. Will the tiny family survive? Are they ready for their greatest adventure yet? We were on the edge of our seats before it had even started.

First thought was how on earth will they stage the differences in scale? The Clock family are fairy-sized who ‘borrow’ (never steal) from the human beans who are giants in their world. Toots Butcher’s’s imaginative oversized set design is a cracker – cotton reels as stools, wooden play bricks as tables, walls covered in sheet music and handwritten letters, an abacus acts as a ladder while an old sardine tin makes the perfect boat (obviously). But that’s not all, Director Paul Hart ( The Watermill’s Artistic Big Cheese) uses other theatrical inception-style techniques that mess with your mind and tap into your imagination. It’s clever and really creative, making full use of the theatre’s bijou size and levels.

The cast is small, but ridiculously talented. They act, sing, dance and play instruments. All of them! It’s captivating from start to finish. I was expecting my little man to get the fidgets, but his eyes were like saucers, his jaw dropped – and he laughed like a drain when Matthew Romain as the dad, Pod, performed his Power Ranger moves on a puppet crow.

It’s hard to talk about stand-out performances because they’re all amazing. Romain’s pragmatic Pod is the counterweight to the emotional outbursts of Homily, played by Charlotte Workman. Arrietty, played by Nenda Neurer is a fearless teenage girl, looking for adventure and to be treated as an equal. Pretty modern stuff from Mary Norton in 1952. The ensemble cast work their socks off too, with more costume changes than Lady Gaga – standard stuff when you’re playing multiple roles.

Kickass ensemble cast: Natasha Karp, Ed MacArthur and Frazer Hadfield have more costume changes than Lady Gaga

Ed MacArthur adds a more traditional element of Christmas theatre as the tipsy, cackling villain, Crampfurl, there’s a hint of the Errol Flynn’s about him as Spiller and splash of Nigel Farage as Uncle Hendreary. And I loved Natasha Karp’s terrifying performance as the evil Mrs Driver. A definite ‘Do Not Mess’ tone to her voice. But as I say everyone plays their part.

If I was bring picky on a couple of occasions the music overwhelmed some of the solo singing, but that’ll get ironed out. On the whole this is a wonderfully low-key and poignant production, along the lines of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, with moments of melancholy underscored by Tarek Merchant’s superb music.

In many ways The Watermill breaks the rules of how to entertain kids, yet despite its lack of whizz bang theatricals, The Borrowers keeps a young audience totally enthralled throughout. It’s a quieter take on Christmas entertainment but curiously beautiful. Book a ticket. you will not be disappointed.
The Borrowers is on at The Watermill Theatre until Sun 31 Dec.


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