Garden blooms through the snow

Thomas Aldridge as Dickon and Amy Lennox as Mary in The Secret Garden. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

The Secret Garden

Birmingham Rep

****

TAKING a much loved book and not only putting it on stage but making it into a musical is fraught with danger.

But Birmingham Rep in a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse have largely pulled it off. They were helped by the fact it is a bit of a girlie book so at least half the audience, most of the men and a lesser number of women who had not read it, had no idea what the book was about and so had no preconceived ideas or expectations.

It all starts when Mary Lennox played beautifully by Amy Lennox (no relation - that's journalistic training coming out) is orphaned in India and his sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor on the edge ot'moors, lass.

Mary is a skinny, miserable little madam used to screaming at servants and tha doesna do that int'Yorkshire, lass. She is brought down to earth with a bump by her maid Martha Sowerby, a grand Northern name, played down to earth, matter of factly by Evelyn Hoskins. 

Her collection of cobbled street mill town skipping songs while skipping is one of the highlights and generated a deserved round of applause.

Archie, Christopher Dickens showing a fine singing voice, is a bit of a Captain Von Trapp character living a miserable life in the past since his wife, sister of Mary's mother, dies 10 years ago.

He also has a secret, a son, Colin, hidden in the old garret tended by cousin Percival, the family doctor. James Gillan gives a nice level of frustrated petulance as the bed and guilt ridden son although it does require a Bob Beaman sized leap of the imagination to be convinced he is 10. To his credit though he does bring our Colin to life.

Snow on t'moors for Mary (Amy Lennox) in her new home in Yorkshire

The garden of the title has been left untended since Lily died and is brought back to life by Mary and Dickon Sowerby (Thomas Aldridge), the brother of Martha, who both manage convincing northern accents by the way without making then so strong you would need surtitles.

The garden finds Mary eventually smiling again and finally brings the invalid Colin back to life as well so that everyone can live happily ever after.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the book which was first published complete in New York in 1911, was a Lancastrian, from Manchester, but her family had moved to the US when she was 16.

She was also a Christian Scientist and The Secret Garden is seen as her way of expressing the healing powers of nature.

The set, designed by Ruari Murchison, is a veritable merry-go-round with the revolving stage dominated by a huge central brick tower serving as India, the manor,  bedrooms, offices, its gardens, the secret garden as well as the railway and a horse and carriage.

There is clever use of gardeners as walls as well as a symbolic robin and a rook.

I thought the set and smooth rapid changes worked, others found it made them giddy.

The music by Tim Sutton and songs were interesting and added to the show and although no song stood out as a possible hit beyond the confines of Misselthwaite none sounded like positive turkeys.

The first half setting the scene so we know who everyone is and what they are like is a little slow paced but that picks up after the interval and there is even some tension built up as to whether Mary will be sent away destroying the magic of the garden. Magic though is a bit of a problem.

This is the last production on the main stage before it goes dark for two years and it continues in the Rep tradition of classy festive offerings. It is certainly lavish and beautifully produced and has plenty of feel good factor to commend it.

It is a charming children's story but with no Christmas element at all in the story it is just a musical and one wonders if there is enough magic and sparkle to enchant younger audience members taken along as a festive treat.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile over the garden wall . . .

*****

LESS than 15 minutes into this stage adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel I knew I was seeing something quite magical . . . the remarkable set designed by Ruari Murchison.

Built on a revolving base, it represents the imposing Misselthwaite Manor in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors, and it can be opened up, dolls house fashion, become a brick tower, spin to reveal different bedrooms, while a second revolving section includes solid wooden doors through which the characters frequently emerge.

And, of course, it has the gardens so important to the story which, although aimed at attracting children, proves equally endearing for adults with its touch of mystery, menace and a happy ending.

With all this talk about the surroundings, let's not forget the excellent cast whose acting and singing is of the highest order, Amy Lennox superb as young Mary Lennox who moves to live with her grumpy widowed uncle, Archibald Craven (Christopher Dickins) when she is orphaned in India.

INSPIRATIONAL

Her transformation from a spiteful, spoilt and moody 10-year-old into a happy helpful child determined to revive her apparently confined-to-bed weakling cousin, Colin, is inspirational.

Thomas Aldridge excels, too, as Mary's new friend, Dickon, joining with her to uncover the secrets of the secret garden. There is a charming performance from Evelyn Hoskins (the maid Martha Sowerby), and James Gillan is an impressive Colin, particularly when he bursts into song and takes his first steps.

Caroline Keiff, playing the dual roles of Mary's mother and aunt, Julie Jupp (Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper), Alan Vicary (the gardener) and Giles Taylor (Dr Percival Craven), all make a considerable impact, while the band, under musical director Dan Jackson, provide the extremely pleasant music written and arranged by Tim Sutton.           

Directed by Ian Brown, the Secret Garden remains open till 08.01.11. A fitting finale before the Rep closes for its major rebuilding project.

Paul Marston 

This is not the first time the book has taken to the stage by the way, a 1991 Broadway musical by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman was nominated for seven Tonys and picked up two including one for Daisy Eagan who was 11 and played Mary. The youngest girl ever to be awarded a Tony.

 

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