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The Secret Garden, The Space

Frances Hodgson-Burnett

Adapted and directed by Eleanor Appleton
★★★★
Pros: A dynamic and enjoyable adaptation of a classic good-mood tale with some very good acting and use of space. Some great physical theatre and puppetry scenes.
Cons: Props were bare but did their job. Some rushed transitions interrupted the magic flow at times.
Our Verdict: A well-adapted, fast and uplifting play set in an interesting theatre space. Enjoyable all round.
Credit: Estibaliz Moreno 
There’s something special about attending a show at The Space Arts Centre in the Isle of Dogs. Perhaps it’s the eerie walk along the edge of the river, or maybe it’s the effect of having a perfectly profane pint and burger in the heart of this beautiful Victorian chapel. Whatever it is, I was in a perfect mood to start enjoying a fable of the past. And The Secret Garden is indeed a good-mood fable. Written by Frances Hodgson-Burnett back in 1911 and screened in theatres and cinemas all around the world, it is a classic beyond any doubt. Some say even that Heidi was inspired by it, but this can’t be true as there are very few goats or mountains on stage.
Even though this adaptation is quite faithful to the original script, Eleanor Appleton does a good job in introducing a fresh view and gives it its own dynamic spin. The story in brief: when Mary’s rich, colonial parents suddenly die, she must leave her Indian home to join her obscure Uncle back in England. Having grown up surrounded by intense human warmth and vibrant natural colours, Mary must now adapt to life in an isolated mansion set on acres of barren English moors. Thankfully, she doesn’t get bored. Welcomed by creepy housekeepers and sinister screams at night, she soon discovers a magic garden and, with the help of local boy Dickon, she transforms it into a magical place full of flowers and colours, finally shaking her ghostly Uncle out of his self-inflicted isolation.
What develops in front of the audience is a twirling play of fast moving, well-defined characters, all enjoyably timed to give an impressively dynamic feel to it all. Actors come from behind, in-between and even from above out of the darkness. The scene in which Mary travels on the coach with draconian housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julia Munrow) was adorable – I could feel the bumps of the turn-of-the-century British road just under my skin. Danar Richards as Mary was relentless in her fast acting and a joy to watch. She’d pull faces, laugh and transform a bed into a garden with seemingly no effort at all. Liam Callanan’s Dickon was perhaps my favourite character: what’s not to like in a farmer’s boy who seems to know all the secrets of Mother Nature and who manages the most tremendous chores with a perfect smile painted on his face?! And then there is Colin (Jamie Scott-Smith), the cripple who turns into a runner with the magic spell of the garden’s joyful blooms. His acting was fitting and he managed the difficult transition from ghost to happy runner quite well.
One of the perks of the play was its use of puppets. Skilfully manipulated by Stephanie Hazel, the likes of robins and garden birds were a fun addition to the handmade blooms and to the overall dynamism of this play. And when Uncle Archibald (Nathan Thompson) returns to see his secret garden opened up, how would he not forgive his newly found niece for bringing his son back to life? A moving finale of hugs and sobs salutes this feel-good production in a glimmer of flying birds.
Perhaps the transitional scenes could have been a tad less abrupt, and yes, the props were nothing to write home about. Overall however, this is a brilliant adaptation of a magical old tale that both children and the young at heart will definitely enjoy, and one that makes you go home with your soul a touch lighter than when you came in.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Secret Garden runs at The Space until 4th May 2013.
Box Office: 020 7515 7799 or book online at http://space.org.uk/2012/12/13/the-secret-garden/

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