‘The Secret Garden’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by July 3, 2017

‘The Secret Garden – the Musical’ is based on the 1911, children’s classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book was written with Burnett’s visits to Buile Hill Park – near her home in Salford – in mind, along with the stunning gardens of Great Maytham Hall in Kent that inspired the secret garden itself.

In autumn 1910, the story was initially serialised in an American magazine. Although the book is still 15th in the 100 best children’s books, in Burnett’s lifetime ‘The Secret Garden’ was rarely mentioned, her far more popular novels coming to the fore. Possibly, because of the confusion as to whether this book was for adults or children. This story was also the basis of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’.

Since the copyright ran out 30 years ago, many versions of this book have been presented as fun fairy stories; however, the initial book was very dark. This 1991, American musical by Marsha Norman is adapted around the original text. The lyrics of the two dozen songs are informative and interesting, but I found Lucy Simon’s music a little dull and at times even dirge like. Having said this, the musical was nominated for several Tony Awards, so obviously different people have different tastes.

This production starts with about half an hour of quality, ‘opera-style’ vocal delivery. Whilst much admired by the older members of the audience, it was possibly a little tiresome for the children under 12 yrs. These youngsters probably went to the theatre expecting to see a light-hearted show, perhaps even a pantomime style interpretation, similar to Burnett’s ‘Little Princess’ presented by Stirling Theatre last year.

This two-and-a-half-hour presentation, which was created for the Melville Theatre Company, has curtain-up at 8.00 each Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening at the Melville Theatre, Stock Road in Palmyra until Saturday 15th July.

 

George Boyd’s set design was quite ingenious, with a series of flats individually mounted on castors so that they could be rotated or moved into the wings by the stage hands hidden behind. Even the beds, including a four-poster bed and one with a mosquito net over it, moved like magic around the stage. The choreography of the props and cast throughout the play was almost like a ballet, the result was the set changes were hardly noticeable.

At the end of the play, the flowers were strikingly brought back to life most effectively with numerous silk and plastic plants, enhanced by special lighting patterns. Production assistant Jacqui McGarrity, along with stage manager Janene Zampino and her hard working assistant Briana Dunn, were faced with a large cast to manage and dozens of set changes – great work.

Michelle Sharpe had the difficult task of sourcing a variety of army uniforms and sumptuous dresses, well done.

Don Allen’s clever lighting design employs a dozen ‘lime lights’ along the front edge of the stage; these LEDs gave a real feeling of the play’s early 1900s setting. The lighting operator, Barbara Lovell did not miss a cue on this technically complex production.

It is 1901. Mary Lennox (Christie McGarrity – understudied by Sophia Matthews) is a sickly 10-year-old girl who was born in India to wealthy British parents. Her mother Rose (Erin Craddock) and her military father, Captain Lennox (James Massey) never wanted her. She becomes a spoiled, aggressive, and selfish child, giving her servants Ayah (Roshni Kaila) and Fakir (Cooper Jenkins) a great deal of stress.

     A cholera epidemic kills her parents, and in 1906, Mary is sent to Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire to live with her widower Uncle Archibald (Justin Freind). Archibald’s wife was Lily (Meesha Williams) who died giving birth to their son, Colin (Joshua White). Because Uncle Archibald has a spine deformity and a hunched back, his brother Dr Neville Craven (Ross Burford) confines young Colin to bed in a special jacket, to stop him becoming like his father.

     Neither of Mary’s mother’s brothers have any interest in caring for Mary, so they have their head housekeeper, Mrs Medlock (Andrea von Bertouch) take over. She confines Mary to her room, where she is attended by Martha (Niamh Nichols) a caring but slightly loopy maid. One day, Martha tells Mary of her aunt’s beautiful secret garden.

       Eventually, whilst wandering around the grounds of the manor, Mary meets Martha’s brother, an apprentice gardener called Dickon (Jesse Watts) who works with the elderly head gardener, Ben (Rex Grey). Mary finds a high wall, overgrown by ivy and other plants, she is told that this is her aunt’s Secret Garden, and that since her death, Archibald has not allowed anyone to enter.

      Mary nervously asks Uncle Archibald if she can plant seeds in an ‘unwanted’ area of the grounds. Lord Craven gives his permission and then leaves on a long trip abroad. Mary is now left in the hands of her new teacher, Mrs Winthrop (Briana Dunn) – but thanks to Mary’s ‘attitude’ – the tutor does not stay for long.

     Can Mary eventually prove to her cousin that he is not ill?

 There were ‘Dreamers’ who appeared throughout the play. They were the ‘ghosts’ and memories of people of Mary’s past. The parts of the Dreamers were played by Sophia Matthews, Matilda Jenkins, Blake Jenkins, Grant O’Neil, Sarah White, Ronald Macqueen, Penelope Colgan, and Matthew Little. I must emphasise that this group were not simply extras, but they were expected to sing and perform throughout the play. They also acted as stage crew, moving the props and flats silently as others performed. Great multitasking.

 

The leading adults were superb vocalists, with clear diction; but as they say, ‘never work with children’, because the star was 14yrs. old Christie who was magnificent; she had true stage presence and is obviously is looking at a great future. Likewise Joshua was most impressive.

Katherine Freind’s direction was superb. Ideas like dropping red handkerchief indicating another Cholera victim. having the sets moved whilst the action continued. This worked extremely well and kept the pace moving nicely. The direction was most graceful.

Musical director, Ross John Burford, assisted by Justin Freind, produced some wonderful singing. Some actors were obviously operatically trained, others were simply very good amateur singers who worked their hearts out. Lea Hayward’s accompaniment was perfectly matched to the action, with special effects like tintinnabulations, the robin’s message to Mary and a musical box, they all worked perfectly. Early in the play, the accompaniment could have been a little softer, as some of the singers may have had a little problem of singing projection due to nerves with the packed house.