Children’s theatre – I’ll rephrase that – theatre for younger audiences – can tackle dark issues and universal themes very successfully. Take, for example, the Dorset-based Angel Exit Theatre and its new version of the 100 year-old classic story The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Adaptation and direction are by Tamsin Fessey and Lynne Forbes who use a range of theatre techniques, including mime (the Jacques Lecoq training shows) and puppetry, to draw us into the worlds of Mary Lennox.
She’s not your typical Victorian heroine, far from it. Ashleigh Cheadle makes her arrogant and almost ill-favoured as well as bad-tempered. As she is taken from her cosseted but lonely childhood in colonial India following her laisser-faire parents’ deaths during a cholera epidemic to a remote manor-house on the Yorkshire moors, she begins to learn how to listen as well as shout, how to give as well as take. But it’s a slow process for her, if not for us.
The production uses deceptively simple props and costuming. A carpet reverses to become a lawn, a lamp-standard sprouts branches, a rake and a hoe tip to indicate flights of stairs and long corridors, fabric festoons criss-cross the stage to suggest a wilderness of rose trees, a wheel-barrow doubles as a bed, snakes, birds and a fox are rod and hand puppets, minimal costume changes allow for four actors to play different parts as well as act as a chorus.
At some two hours’ length and with a lot of words, it is a tribute to the company that the smaller as well as adult members of the audience concentrated so completely as Mary made friends – Forbes as Martha, the housemaid, Simon Carroll-Jenkins as Mary’s invalid cousin Colin and the redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Medlock, Max Macintosh as Martha’s brother Dickon and Henry Douthwaite as the old gardener Ben and the grieving widower Mr Craven – and learnt that people as well as nature have fruitful as well as barren seasons.