The English nostalgia for imagined golden ages means that many children’s Christmas shows are adaptations of Victorian or Edwardian novels. Many are robust enough to survive in the 21st century, some even earn the epithet “ageless”, but Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is not one of those.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse production is well acted and well sung with outstanding visual effects and imaginative use of a talented ensemble, but its impact is modest. The difficulty lies in the words, Hodgson Burnett’s, I suspect, rather than those of Garry Lyons who has adapted the novel economically. The use of multiple narrators linking short scenes is effective, but much of both narration and dialogue is trite and cliché-ridden. Characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, working out a schematic morality tale for good middle-class children.
A cast of 15, many multi-tasking, tells the story of Mary Lennox whose pampered life as a child of Empire in India is rudely interrupted when her entire household is wiped out by a cholera epidemic. She is sent to the Yorkshire mansion of her uncle where her childish demands and petulant rages make her initially unpopular. Her uncle has two secrets: tormented by the early death of his wife, he has closed off the garden she loved and treats their healthy son as an invalid, shut off from the world. Now Uncle Archibald escapes from his suffering in endless, pointless travelling. Happily in Hodgson Burnett’s pre-Freudian world the redemptive power of the garden transforms first Mary, then everyone else.
Despite the shortcomings of the material there is much to admire in Garry Lyons’ version and Ian Brown’s production. Lyons and composer Tim Sutton’s songs include some jolly and tuneful comedy numbers which produce the evening’s most entertaining moments. The designs (Ruari Murchison, with splendid contributions from Paul Pyant’s lighting and Mic Pool’s sound) are superb, combining instant practicality – great use of a double revolve – with moments of beauty.
Jayne Wisener does all that can be expected of her as Mary: she doesn’t shirk the appalling self-absorption of the early scenes and, if the transformation is a little too sudden, that is hardly her fault. As Colin, the putative invalid, James Gillan has an even more unlikely transformation to achieve and the humour he finds in the character is a saving grace.
David Birrell, as Uncle Archibald, has disappointingly little to do and does it very well. The lower classes turn out in force to breathe life into two-dimensional characters. Josie Walker’s sub-Mrs. Danvers housekeeper has a refreshing bluntness (and turns out to be nice really); Savannah Stevenson is a lively maid and does a terrific job on her speciality number, as does Mark Roper, the gnarled and sympathetic gardener; Thomas Aldridge is surprisingly convincing as the child of the moors, Dickon, the robin’s friend.
The expertise and imagination of the production are beyond doubt; I just hope that young audiences find the basic material more rewarding than I did.