When Suella Braverman talked about an “invasion” of immigrants, she was using the language of othering. The word is only one step away from “infestation”: the idea that some alien force is taking over.
That is pretty much how the humans think of the Borrowers in Mary Norton’s children’s classic. These diminutive creatures live beneath the floorboards and make use of the matchsticks, teacups and biscuit crumbs discarded above. They could hardly be more peaceable, but to their mighty human adversaries, they are a threat.
Theresa Heskins’ adaptation brings out the links between Norton’s 1952 fantasy and another book published the same year, Anne Frank’s Diary – something you can see in Arrietty, the Borrower daughter, frustrated to be locked away, never to engage in the to-and-fro of the world. Forced to flee, she makes a journey with her parents, Homily and Pod, that is an exodus across alien territory, beset by the fear of being seen. It is a fear just as real to those migrating across continents today.
That is why, in Heskins’ adaptation (which first aired at the New Vic in 2015), Norton’s tale seems less like a wild adventure than an escape from trauma. Musical director Greg Last and a cast of actor-musicians give attractive settings to the score by James Atherton, even as its klezmer-influenced songs are weighted by their yearning minor keys.
So far so soulful, if only the songs did not interrupt the action rather than propel it forward. And if only what should be an urgent tale did not have so fitful a dramatic spark. The play has moments of jeopardy and delight, but retains its episodic origins.
Add to this a tone more sober than celebratory, and the 1940s sepia of Bronia Housman’s design, and the result is an unseasonably brooding production from director Zoë Waterman. There are lively performances from Courtney George (Arrietty), Katherine Toy (Homily) and Michael Blair (Pod), and good theatrical fun is had with the contrasting scales of Borrower and human – but the mood is tempered by a show more concerned with the darkness of captivity than the release of freedom.
At Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 14 January