Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol – until 20 January 2019
Tobacco Factory Theatres have well served Bristol festive audiences over the years, including one bona fide theatrical masterpiece in Sally Cookson’s Olivier Award-winning Cinderella. Alas, not every show can have Cookson and not every show can fly, and so it proves with The Borrowers, which resolutely stays grounded.
If the slow-burning piece picks up momentum and invention as it goes, for those with an ear to the ground its rhythms are slightly off, its pacing creaky. The workmanlike effort starts at its source. Adaptor Bea Roberts, whose splendid Little Mermaid at the Egg last Christmas spun Hans Christian Andersen’s tale into modern relevance and gave a kick-ass 80s soundtrack to boot, reigns it in and produces a relatively faithful adaptation of Mary Norton’s 1952 original tale.
The edge and drive that was so apparent in Bath have been blunted a little here. So the story of Pod, Arrietty and Homily, little Borrowers who live under the floorboards of the house of the prim and proper Mrs Driver, and the unlikely friendship that forms between Jessica Hayle’s young Arietty and the big boy who goes to stay with his Aunt, Eddie, is told with a straight bat and with just a side dollop of whimsy.
All the set pieces that a certain generation will remember best from the BBC show are here, from the threat of a hoover to the final Ratcatcher scene as the little family are threatened with extinction. These are staged with some invention by director Nik Partridge, the vacuum cleaner scene and in particular, a moving crisp packet is particularly niftily done.
Designer Rosanna Vize has created an adventure playground within the confines of the studio, two ladders hanging from the rafters which the family occasionally clamour on, though the cost per climb ratio makes you wonder if it could have been put to more frequent use.
The performances are perfectly adequate. Simon Armstrong, a fine classical actor, with many year’s service to Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is a relatable narrator as the adult Eddie looking back on his past, comfortable in his interactions with the audience, but lacking a front man’s charisma when he picks up a guitar and sings. Hayles, Peta Maurice and Bristol favourite Craig Edwards are pleasant enough but not really given anything to stretch them. It’s left to the ever-reliable Lucy Tuck to come in and take the plaudits, her Liverpudlian Aunt, a real monstrous highlight, brandishing her garish pink hoover like a shotgun.
Christmas shows are big beasts in the regional theatre economy and there’s enough here to satisfy over the month ahead. Yet the very best Christmas shows sprinkle a little magic over proceedings and that isn’t the case here. You can see the hard work and joins when really it should appear effortless.
The Borrowers plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 20 January 2019