Pros: A ridiculously talented cast and an enchanting story with universal appeal.
Cons: The production is heavily edited from the Broadway version and occasionally shows a lack of context.
The Secret Garden is the first West End production staged by the British Theatre Academy, a company set up to train and promote talented young performers under the age of 23. They work closely with top West End and Broadway professionals and this is the result, a unique 75 minute ‘spring version’ of the Tony Award winning show. It might seem a pretty big ask, because songs and scenes have been cut to focus on youthful elements of the show. On the whole, the producers achieve their objective, but the story does feel truncated at times, giving the impression of a collection of excerpts rather than a stand-alone production.
The story tells of 11 year-old Mary Lennox, orphaned in India, who returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive Uncle Archibald and his invalid son Colin. On their estate, she discovers a locked garden filled with magic, a boy who talks to birds, and a cousin she brings back to health by putting him to work in the garden. As the tale develops, visions of Colin’s dead mother Lilly appear, as do Mary’s late parents, Rose and Albert. Mary rails against the idea of being sent away to school and tends the garden as Colin slowly regains his health. The original book by Frances Hodgson-Burnett was published in 1911, and invites comparison with The Railway Children, a similarly wistful tale of childhood discovery and adventure. It has the same simplicity and purity that captures the attention with ease. The songs are bright and engaging, particularly The House upon the Hill and Come Spirit, Come Charm. The choreography gently supports the visuals with a set design that wisely doesn’t over-elaborate, instead asking the audience to use its imagination.
But like any production, it wins with good casting and there are some fine performances to savour; Alana Hinge is excellent as the stroppy, headstrong Mary, and easily gets into Charlotte Bott mode when needed, recalling another great kids’ story, Just William. Sam Proctor plays the cheeky, likable Sam with aplomb; while Scarlet Smith is the standout of adult performers, looking and sounding beautiful as Lilly. In many respects, this version is a taster and I would certainly like to see the full show, just to appreciate the intricate story in its full context, where characters are explored in more detail. Nevertheless, it gets the job done: it emphasises the role of the children in the story, and provides a showcase for young, emerging talent. On this showing, British theatre will be in good shape for many years to come.
Author: Frances Hodgson-Burnett
Book and Lyrics: Marsha Norman
Composer: Lucy Simon
Director: Rupert Hands
Musical Director: Richard Baker
Choreographer: Jamie Neale
Producer: Matthew and Stephen Chandler-Garcia on behalf of the British Theatre Academy
Box Office: 020 7395 5405
Booking Link: https://www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk/online/
Booking Until: 31 August 2016