The Secret Garden – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writer: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Adaptor: Elizabeth Newman

Director: Ben Occhipinti

Following the death of her parents in Conolonised British India, a young girl, Mary Lennox is moved to her closest living relative – a stern and seemingly unwilling Uncle near the Yorkshire Moors. The dark, vast emptiness of the home is unwelcoming, but the richness and gentile nature of the surrounding woods and gardens offer tranquillity and haven for Mary unlike any she has previously encountered. And so, as Mary grows in strength, kindness, and sincerity, perhaps her experiences may be able to help another within the halls of this grand home. Or maybe even a few more.

Continuing to be a fortuitous charm of Pitlochry, Blythe Jandoo trades in the frizz and curl of the currently runningGypsy, for the lace and stamping tantrums of the young Mary. Evolving from the petulance of a child to that of a young woman, akin to the feelings of others and the balance and healing nature of the world around her – especially impressive over the shorter runtime.

The theatre’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman offers a variety of voices for childhood through her new script: of whimsy and wonder, ones of chutzpah and misunderstanding, but care is taken to ensure the childlike voice of fear and uncertainty is offered a place at the table to rest its woes through a core of grief, of loss, of those dreading their future (or lack thereof). It’s an affirming presence through the gentle production, Newman and Occhipinti’s hands carefully there to guide to story forward but encouraging any sprouts of imagination to flourish of their own accord.

It’s echoed in Robbie Scott’s Dickon, a serene young boy who discovers comfort in his body and the benefits the outside world has on both the body and the mind. A far cry from the worries of Mr Craven’s son Colin, confined to his bed chambers and facing the darkness alone, the staff fearful of his ailment and fragility, neglecting the elements which could help him. Not out of malice, however, as Trudy Ward channels a delicate warmth as house attendant Martha, and the powerful presence of Shona White returns as Mrs Medlock, the closest the production has to any active antagonism, but still a humorous and even relatable character.

Initial worries about the production’s trimmed runtime are well-eased throughout, Newman’s streamlining of Burnett’s significantly larger (though not overly) novel offers a tremendous fervour of pace which is an aid for younger audiences’ (and indeed vintage) attention. However, the worry of straying eyes is never a genuine concern – the performances become enrapturing with charm and whimsy amidst the fresh greens and sodden earth lining the Amphitheatre – so much so that the spectacular opening out onto the River below becomes a window of the production, rather than a distraction.

It’s only in the final moments that the snips at the timing feel apparent. And even then, these minor grievances only happen for moments as the splendour of the garden’s ‘magic’ unfurls itself – and if anything is only a cry for more twists and reveals, more blossoms to spring life through the once barren, minimalist setting. The fresh scent from Nuck Trueman’s newly constructed set piece, masquerading the magnificent views the Amphitheatre offers, though for strikingly effective reasons as all becomes clear, welcomes an apothecary of healing the production offers.

Scuttling around the audience, leaping amidst the gleeful smiles, the ensemble takes to the stands to bring a merriment like no other to the crowds as fawns (Marc Small), lambs, red-breasted robins, embodied with a powerfully poetic performance from Matthew Churcher, and a ridiculously cute rabbit (gorgeous performers by Oliver Cookson) all make-up the puppetry forThe Secret Garden. These two share the minimalist design we’ve seen throughout, but their presence is an immediate hit, unlike the gradually evolving staging.

For as quaint, and charming as Newman makesThe Secret Garden, this production offers a unique sense of clean, innocent, and modest theatrical storytelling in a simply gorgeously restorative manner. And for a tale as old as the ages for many, its breath is fresh, its heart pure, and its expression hearty: a thing of beauty.

Runs until 19 August 2023 | Image: Neil Fordyce

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