Writer: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Adapter: Jessica Swale
Director: Liz Stevenson
Designer: Lily Arnold
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Theatre by the Lake production of The Secret Garden, now settled into York Theatre Royal for a four-week run, does everything possible to make Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel come vividly to life for a modern audience. Especially striking is the staging, Lily Arnold’s set fringed by Autumnal trees, with reflective panels lifting to reveal Colin Craven’s sickbed or opening up for interiors or, spectacularly, for the secret garden itself, beautifully lit by Matt Leventhall.
Animals and birds, manipulated by actor/puppeteers directed by Steve Tiplady, frolic around the action, very attractive if a touch twee. Barnaby Race’s music is evocative, making no attempt at period feel, with a touch of the Indian reflecting Mary Lennox’s background. Rather more problematic is the move towards the melodramatic with the death of Mary’s parents, not in a cholera epidemic as in Burnett, but in a sudden earthquake that hits the Governor’s house at party time, or the exaggerated amplified howls of poor Colin – more like the madwoman in the attic!
Burnett’s novel tells the story of Mary Lennox, a child of Empire, who, orphaned in India, is sent to England to be looked after by a reclusive relative in Yorkshire. It’s a tale of redemption, reconciliation and rebirth, with the garden a hugely influential metaphor. Mary learns to put away her contempt for the lower classes and by her vitality frees her uncle from his heartbroken mourning for his wife (she for whom the garden was made) and her cousin Colin from his invalid state.
Jessica Swale’s adaptation is bold as well as economical. In addition to the social and moral content of the original which, bravely, she doesn’t dilute, she adds a strong, if unlikely, element of magic and parallels Colin’s life-threatening illness with his father’s own disability. The ease with which both are resolved might tempt the sceptical to conclude that a good brisk walk is a cure for all known illnesses.
However, to be more positive, The Secret Garden looks terrific. Liz Stevenson’s skilful marshalling of her cast of eleven makes it seem much larger – and several of them switch role from actor to puppeteer and back with great skill. As Mary Lennox Ella Dunlop is outstanding, accomplishing the change from introverted snob to liberated free spirit via all the stops on the way with total conviction and energy to burn: she is as much at home charging round on giddy galumphing runs as she is moving with demure grace. Steven Roberts (Colin) gives another stand-out performance, moving towards liberation in a different way. As an invalid, his conversations with Mary are touchingly reminiscent of the dying Linton and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, though Colin, of course, is not dying.
Matthew Durkan is credible and understated as Dickon, the “nature boy” who talks to the animals, and Coral Sinclair, in the much more appealing role of his servant girl sister Martha, makes the most of it in a feisty, sympathetic and funny performance. Chris Jack’s dignified and troubled landowner, Flo Wilson’s domineering housekeeper and Keith Bartlett’s jovially gnarled gardener fill out the life of Misselthwaite Manor.
Runs until 25 August 2018 | Image: Contributed