Review: The Secret Garden at York Theatre Royal

Wednesday 1st August 2018 at York Theatre Royal.


Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel gets an affectionate adaptation from Jessica Swale in this production from Theatre by the Lake. As far as adaptations of classics and of children’s fiction go, this is beautifully done, paying tribute to the original with a few tweaks to cater for slightly more sheltered modern-child audiences. Director Liz Stevenson appears equally fond of the tale and directs a fantastic cast with an impressive sense of progression and character development – not an easy task to master when it comes to the various transformed and reformed characters in Burnett’s story of coming of age, tolerance and the magic of will and friendship. And as if the production design, skilled adaptation and excellent performances aren’t enough to win us over, the production faithfully delivers the old time Yorkshire dialect which fills the pages of the novel, adding such unique warmth and charm to an already compelling period piece.

The Secret Garden features two branches of a rich Victorian family; one living in India before tragedy strikes and another in Yorkshire. Mary is sent from India to live in her Uncle’s forbidding house where she continues to be as unwanted as she was in India. But gradually, Mary blossoms from spiteful, ungrateful little madam into a thoroughly lovely person full of compassion. For the first time, Mary learns of the power of gentleness and care thanks to her unexpected collision with two young boys who turn out to be the perfect antidote to the acidity instilled in her by her entitled parents.

In keeping with the original, Ella Dunlop perfectly portrays the transformation of Mary from sour faced mis-led innocent to joyful child full of positive wilfulness with impressive credibility. Not only is she superbly cast, but Dunlop’s performance is magnetic, making her the perfect child protagonist. Matthew Durkan is just as perfectly cast as young charismatic animal-whisperer Dickon as Dunlop is Mary. Durkan is a archetypal Yorkshire lad with a love of the outdoors and a winning fearlessness, making him a perfect tonic for the two very demanding, uptight children of the big house. Coral Sinclair is wonderfully charming as Martha – a salt of the earth type, who takes everything in her stride – including Mary’s outrageous claims – and displays both a love of fun and a heart of gold.

There are a few notable departures from the characterisations in the original, but none to the detriment of the story and most a contribution to the overall haze of childhood innocence. Keith Bartlett’s Ben Weatherstaff is certainly not the intimidating grouch with hidden heart of the novel, but rather, he’s a playful friendly face and a rare example of a likeable grown-up. In much the same vein, sickly child Colin doesn’t display the depths of spoilt hysterics and cruel tongue to rival Mary’s as is the case in the original, but Steven Roberts’ portrayal offers up something special: a boy who is almost immediately likeable and sympathetic. Colin’s pre-occupation with death is more comically tragic and overplayed than genuinely ominous and his high-pitched voice brings the unjust nature of keeping Colin cooped up in perpetual immaturity to the fore.

Designer Lily Arnold casts many spells with inventive set design which impresses with various levels, textures and multi-functional space. This production goes the extra mile when it comes to crafting this story for the stage, often presenting key moments in ambitious and stylish ways – the discovery of poor Colin and the tension created by his haunting cries is one such example of impactful design giving extra power to plot points. Lighting from Matt Leventhall skilfully takes us from India to disaster to the Yorkshire Moors, a journey equally well captured by Composer and Musical Director Barnaby Race who allows talented lead Dunlop to showcase some beautiful vocals while also contributing evocative underscoring of action and atmospheric chanting perfectly placed within the narrative.

This is a production with children very much in mind – The Secret Garden naturally holds fascination – what child isn’t intrigued by secrets and special places to call their own? It’s a beautiful garden too – lush and full of colour and life to make little eyes shine. And of course what would The Secret Garden be without Dickon’s animal besties? Enter sweet and cuddly puppetry design from Peter O’Rourke and woodland creatures brought playfully to life by Puppetry Director Steve Tiplady and cast. Together, garden and animals make this a piece of children’s theatre to delight – and for grown ups, it’s an idealised trip of nostalgia – reminiscent of summers spent outdoors and that innate connection so many children feel with furry forest animals.

There’s a little darkness worth mentioning here, too – we mustn’t forget that Mary is a horrid little product of her parental environment just because she’s such a transformed delight of a child at the close of the play. There’s also the death of her parents and the lonely, dark house to which Mary arrives – a house filled to the gunnels with everlasting mourning, a shut-away child kept sickly for cruel material gain and the shocking mistreatment of servants. And as with almost all Victorian Children’s Fiction, the grown-ups are mostly an unsupportive, absent bunch with little to no nurturing instinct; Mrs Lennox (a perfect snob played by an acidic Rosalind Steele) is the formidable, cold mother of the conflicted Mary; Mrs Phipps (a very dismissive performance from Victoria Brazier), the sour-faced maid is a perfect residual of Mary’s mother’s biting personality; Colin’s father (Chris Jack) is deeply troubled; matronly Mrs Medlock (a very upright Flo Wilson) strides about the place full of purpose and blunt orders and Dr Craven (Antony Jardine) has dark plans for Colin…

But there’s far more light than dark of course, as both invisible, mistreated children find themselves emboldened by their connections and soon we’re thrown into an everlasting summer of youthful frolicking on green, green grass. It’s very rare for me to admire an adaptation which deviates from original characterisations the way this adaptation does, but I think it’s done so judiciously and with such great insight. Theatre by the Lake’s The Secret Garden is presented by York Theatre Royal – it plays at the York Theatre Royal until 25th August 2018 and you can find tickets here– catch it if you can!

Side note to parents/caters/ families with youngsters: throughout the run, various activities for children are planned in the theatre’s converted studio space which is now a lovely little secret garden too.

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