The Secret Garden

Sat 6th – Fri 19th August 2016

reviews

Ruby Gilding

at 12:34 on 10th Aug 2016

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In this reimagining of the beloved novel 'The Secret Garden', musical theatre and puppetry are enchantingly combined. This classic is faithfully adapted by Lucy Betts in an evocative production that resonates with children and adults alike. The production is presented by Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre, whose youthful cast perform with an outstanding professionalism. The company’s dedication to inspiring young actors mirrored the play’s unfolding narrative as we watch “the secret garden coming alive, and the children with it”.

The decision to incorporate puppetry helps the production capture the magical realism at the heart of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s work. Central to the play is the robin that helps Mary Lennox discover the key to a secret garden, and this figure is creatively rendered through the arresting song of Kalyane Warren’s as the voice of the robin. Moreover, the bird’s flight is wonderfully suggested through William Haws’ simple yet evocative hand gestures.

As the production is aimed at children, the show would benefit from a venue with seating on an incline, because many young viewers could not see the stage. This is lamentable, because with each scene’s fluid transition the set design is subtly rearranged. The abandoned garden is artfully conveyed, and this makes the rejuvenating power of nature a believable force within the plot.

At times this performance feels unnecessarily twee, but in the lead role Tilly Bradley counters sentimentality through her portrayal of a disagreeable child’s profound loneliness. With her wonderfully expressive face, Bradley’s performance revels in a petulance that is not only comical, but an accurate reading of the original character. Mary Lennox is a self-centred child who refreshingly goes against the Victorian convention of good-hearted orphans, along the lines of Oliver Twist. David Perkins’ musical direction follows an established precedent of musicals like ‘Oliver!’, but with greater focus on storytelling through expressive songs.

This is an accessible production that responds to subjects of trauma, disability and abandonment thoughtfully. For what may be many children’s first experience of theatre, ‘The Secret Garden’ is a captivating performance and a delightful introduction to the novel.

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Toby Clyde

at 13:17 on 10th Aug 2016

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This inventively staged and fiercely loyal retelling of the novel is a children’s show that completely captures the mystery and magic of Burnett’s classic. A young ensemble cast from the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre is a pleasure as they sing, run and dance through a tale of deep personal growth. Despite this, a broader question for the adult viewer still remains. Does this story, published over 100 years ago, still have a relevant point to make?

We move at a brisk narrative pace, the meticulous choreography and skilled cast taking us though a rich tableau of settings, from Mary Lennox’s orphaning in India, across the world on boats and trains to the sprawling Misselthwaite Manor. Here the pace slows as we linger with Mary in the flowerbeds, discovering the mysteries of a strange walled garden and the sorrow inextricably hidden inside.

This is an engrossing world of archways, secrets and birdsong, and you cannot fault the production in bringing out the magic of these places. Puppetry, deftly shifting environments and moments of song come in and out of focus, none so laboured as to lose the attention of the notoriously restless young audience. It is worth noting however, that the central seating isn’t tiered so it can be a little hard to see and focus from the back.

At times, perhaps the show moves a little too fast in its attempts to cover the considerable plot space of the novel. This might be confusing for a very young child unfamiliar with the book. But this is more than made up for, by a tone that is right on the money (or the shilling to be exact). Irrespective of who they are playing, the cast nails a wide variety of accents and demeanours, from clipped superiority to incomprehensible rural Yorkshire. Mary, played by Tilly Bradley, has a sullen glare that could melt steel beams, even as it softens near the end.

The excitement of this production is certainly infectious, but such is its accomplished fidelity that ‘The Secret Garden’ forces a reflection on the original work. The intrinsic appeal of childhood discovery will certainly never leave ‘The Secret Garden’, but its atmosphere of jolly good old-fashioned fresh air feels a little stiff. Ultimately however, I doubt there are many children’s shows that deal, as this story does, with the deep wounds of trauma at all, let alone with such sensitivity. This fun and impressive retelling is certainly worth both you and your 10 year old’s time.

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