At risk from 'human beans'

Brian Hayward

THE BORROWERS Adapted from Mary Norton's novel by Chris Ballance Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, until January 4

From the time writer Chris Ballance first saw the transformation of Glasgow's West End Cottier Church into a theatre, he wanted to stage The Borrowers there. For those not in the know, I had better explain that the Borrowers are the little people who live under the floorboards, furnishing their lives with "borrowings" from the "human beans" who live "upstairs".

You can see his point. The plot fits the lovely old church perfectly, because this is no everyday story of little folk, no "fairies at the bottom of the garden" tale. Author Mary Norton confessed to being strongly influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank when she invented her Borrowers, and the rather awesome Cottier ambience adds so much to this resonant Fablevision production.

The building is still very obviously a church in which the actors are squatters, dwarfed by their surroundings, and pitching a makeshift lodging rather like the Borrowers.

In the dark of a winter's day, and at night, it is a mysterious space, not on a human scale. The amplified footsteps of the "human beans" echo round the clerestories, as though jackbooted ogres were pacing overhead.

The plot of the play, like the stage version of the wartime Diary, focuses on a traumatic time for this family of three. The parents live in a state of fear. They are isolated from their kind, and in daily terror of being discovered by the "giants" who live "upstairs". The Borrowers' commandment is to stay away from humans, "even the good ones".

Arrietty, the daughter, is rising 14 and anxious to have a life, to see the world above the floorboards. She fears for Borrowers everywhere, and wants "to save the race".

It is her adventuring contact with the boy of the house that leads to their discovery by the forbidding Mrs Driver, and the desperate escape from the poison gas she pumps into their "nest".

Of course, this is Christmas, and all is not angst. To lighten the very real fear and danger in this parable of oppression there is the "magical" music of Alan Tall and a gentle humour, not least in the setting itself. Designer David Rennie has had fun building the Borrowers' living room, with a working watch for a wall clock, pen tops for drinking cups, a bean can for a table and buttons for plates.

When Arrietty and her father go foraging "upstairs", director Liz Gardiner makes an ingenious use of shadow puppetry. The technique works best for the "human beans". In a curious way, theprofiled silhouettes are recognisable but "unknowable" to the audience, as indeed they are to the Borrowers.

After the well-attended end-of-term performances for the primary schools, Fablevision is now giving evening performances for the family.

It calls it "an intelligent alternative to the traditional pantomime" - and it deserves to pull in audiences from the West End.

Performances last 60 minutes. They start at 7pm and, from December 23 to January 4, 2.30pm. There are no performances on Sundays, Christmas Day or January 1 and 2. Tickets are Pounds 6 and Pounds 4. Tel: 0141 357 3868.

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