Yes, I know, the secret garden in The Secret Garden can’t be that much of a secret garden if it’s advertised as being part of a West End show. What is immediately striking, though, about this production, is the mammoth cast list; a younger member of the audience, the sort of person a press night director’s note indicated the show is targeted at, helpfully counted 306 cast photographs in the programme. I have neither the time nor the inclination at the time of writing to verify that, though it may prove a decent substitute for counting sheep if ever I should have trouble getting to sleep one night in the future.
There is no attempt to get all 306 on stage in the same performance: there is a complicated squad rotation system in place, which the programme makes no attempt to explain, merely listing multiplied dozens of people under the heading ‘Ensemble’. There’s something immensely likeable about this set-up, though, an antithesis to so-called celebrity casting. But I do wonder what exactly the creatives mean by having a ‘young audience in mind’ – some of the very youngest in the audience started to get restless on occasion, and in my humble opinion rightly so. An opportunity for some form of audience participation, however minor and inconsequential, was missed. This is a musical that gets as many substantial audience reactions during spoken dialogue as it does at the end of musical numbers. And so much has been sliced from the musical compared to its original production that it feels a little rushed.
The most noticeable cut of all is instrumental. Richard Baker as musical director on the piano plays wondrously, though he is alone in the orchestra pit. Songs such as ‘Lily’s Eyes’ – not mentioned in the programme’s list of musical numbers, but definitely there (I am relying on the 1991 Broadway cast recording track listing), sung by Archibald Craven (George Mulryan) and his brother Neville (Stuart Nunn) – and ‘Come To My Garden’, which largely belongs to Lilly (Scarlet Smith), are almost crying out for an orchestra. What could be huge, soaring scores instead sometimes sound like lullabies, and other times like demo tapes – that is, not the finished product.
In terms of narrative, the stripping back from the ‘full’ version of The Secret Garden has been done in such a way that it is closer to the original novel, in its focus on Mary Lennox (at this performance, Alana Hinge – the role is alternated between her and Monica D’Espagnac, Emily HIghams, Lauren Howes, Kira Moore, Rebecca Nardin, Gracie Weldon and Jasmine Woodward), with adult roles relatively minor. It’s Mary that carries the show rather than her uncle Archibald. There’s a captivating charm in Matthew Nicholas’ Dickon Sowerby, complementing the boisterous nature of his sister Martha (Samantha Bingley) well.
It proved difficult on occasion to grasp what purpose the large ensemble serves on stage, though the available performance space is used to its fullest extent, and thanks to some ingenious choreography from Jamie Neale, the stage never feels overcrowded. The revelation of the said secret garden is a sight to behold after a series of previous scenes involved comparatively little set changes.
This shorter ‘Spring Version’ is satisfactorily sweet, and a positive to take away from its understated nature is that the more overly melodramatic moments from the unabridged version have been taken out. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience, holding my attention throughout, and with a happy ending that is so suited to musical theatre. It only leaves me to say this is a garden worth gracing with your presence.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Secret Garden: Spring Edition is a brand new 70-minute edition of the 1991 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, The Secret Garden, by Marsha Norman & Lucy Simon.
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Orphaned in India, 11 year-old Mary Lennox 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. The Secret Garden has a special place in many people’s hearts. Be it as a novel, a film, or a musical, the timeless story has a way of staying with people far beyond their exposure to it.
Director Rupert – Hands
Musical Director – Richard Baker
Choreographer – Jamie Neale
Costume and Set Design – Lizzy Leech
Resident Director – Julie Thomas
Resident Choreographer – Katy Stephens
Producers – Matthew Chandler and Stephan Garcia for The British Theatre Academy
THE SECRET GARDEN
LONDON, WC2H 9ND
Wednesday 27 July to Wednesday 31 August 2016