Food for young imaginations

Picture of Tom and Hetty in the Midnight Garden

Tom’s midnight garden

Coventry Belgrade

****

IF youngsters are in danger of becoming too used to special effects and Computer Generated Imagery, which all too often are more memorable than the story, then this is the perfect antidote.

This Birmingham Stage Company production is a workout for the imagination, that most powerful special effect of all, and what a treat it is.

Philippa Pearce’s 1958 novel has provided a strong story laced with ghosts and metaphysical dilemmas about time and space, which has been adapted for the stage by legendary children’s dramatist David Wood.

Then director Neal Foster and designer Jacqueline Trousdale provide the basics of the tale on stage, more than enough to grab the audience’s attention but still demanding imagination to complete the picture whether it be gardener Abel’s imaginary tools or a skate along the river to Ely cathedral and the climb up its tower.

The story is deceptively simple. Tom, played by David Tute, is sent to his aunt and uncle, Gwen and Alan, (Kate Adams and Tom Jude, who also plays Abel) after brother Peter (Ed Thorpe) catches measles.

The old house has an old grandfather clock which keeps excellent time although its chimes are more in the think of a number category – except at midnight when the clock strikes 13, thirteen o’clock when time no longer has meaning and a door out to the yard and dustbins becomes the gateway to the midnight garden of the title.

Set in the 1950s Tom finds himself living in a flat in a rambling old house which is owned by a rather stern and strict Mrs Bartholomew, played by Helen Ryan. It has no garden, not that that matters as Tom is not allowed out as he may be infectious and his aunt and uncle don’t want to spread measles.

So he is in quarantine with no friends of his own age to play with and nothing to do until he finds the magic gateway, which takes him back to the house as it was, and indeed still is on the other side of the door, at the end of the 19th century in the reign of Queen Victoria.

There he meets Hatty, another lonely child, played by Caitlin Thorburn, and the pair, even in the few short days Tom is with his aunt and uncle, grow up together.

STRICT AND CRUEL

She can see him, as can Abel, but her strict and cruel aunt Grace (Ryan again) is in the dark as are her three sons, Hatty’s cousins, James (Ifan Gwilym-Jones) who likes her, Edgar (Ed Thorpe) who doesn’t and Hubert (Joe Stuckey) who couldn’t care less about her.

Time has no meaning. Tom, still a little boy, meets the man Hatty, now a young woman, is eventually to marry, Barty, Gwilym-Jones again while she meets brother Peter, who we know should be ill, at home, with measles.

In magic, time is fluid, not a constant. On his side of the grandfather clock Tom is visiting nightly, on Hatty’s side his visits are coming months and even years apart as she grows from little girl to young woman.

It is not an easy concept to take in, or perhaps as adults we analyse too much while children just accept that logic has no place in magic, magic is just . . . well magic.

My three-year-old grandson never questioned the time and space elements as he sat enthralled in silence from beginning to end – to him the little girl and the old lady being one and the same was just the way it was. That was the story. How or why did not matter.

Mind you we had many whys on other matters in the car on the way home though, such as why Hatty fell from a tree or why Tom was crying as he tried to vist the garden one last time.

He has reached that age when a simple why is a sort of logic grenade. An answer is followed by another why followed by another, and another until you reach a point where you either have to reveal the secret of the universe or admit you don’t know – and even that usually elicits another why.

Children are . . . just different and that brings us back to Tom and friends with the actors playing Tom, Hatty, and her three cousins, managing the by no means easy task of adults pretending to be youngsters with some considerable skill.

Add to that the fact that the cast also had to provide an onstage orchestra and BSC has managed to put together a very talented ensemble.

The final scene as Tom talks to Mrs Bartholomew provides us with more questions than answers such as who was the real ghost, was it Tom from the future, or Hatty from the past – and shouldn’t ghosts be of people who are dead?

If it was all a dream, whose dream was it – Tom’s or Hatty’s? Which sounds like an exam question . . . discuss.

The fantasy element is helped by a clever set of scrims, gauze walls which can appear solid or become invisible with clever lighting from Jason Taylor to give us a greenhouse, a tree house, Ely cathedral tower, a house both now and then and a garden which vanished long ago.

All the ingredients are there. Just add imagination and stir. To 19-04-14

Roger Clarke

17-04-14

Contents page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre