The latest production from the Proper Job Theatre Company is an imaginative, if surprisingly melancholic, adaptation of the children's classic The Secret Garden.
John Dwyer's adaptation brings together a series of people recovering from past emotional trauma and defensively shielding themselves from further hurt. Orphan Mary (the role alternates between Kate Bannister and Amelia Lucas) is sent from India to reside with her widower uncle Craven (Rick Ferguson) in Yorkshire and, together with wild child Dickon (Calum McIntosh), sets out to heal her frail cousin Colin (Connor Beckwith/Felix Knowles) by introducing him to a secret garden she has discovered.
Director James Beale reflects the magical atmosphere of the garden with inspired use of computer graphics projected onto the theatre backdrop. The changing seasons are shown by the rapid growth and decline of plants and art galleries simply appear out of thin air. A striking effect is a computerised robin that flits among the chorus and then pops onto the stage in three-dimensional form as a puppet.
Rhys Jarman's set is a flexible marvel. The cast take pieces from the walls to construct puppets and concealed doorways permit swift entrances and exits. The breakaway set allows for a dramatic ending to Act One by cracking open to reveal the secret garden in a blaze of light.
The extent to which it is possible to make an emotional connection with the characters is limited. Dwyer's adaptation retains words and phrases from the early 20th Century with which the younger audience members may be unfamiliar. The acting is highly stylised with the cast addressing their remarks direct to the audience, rather than to each other, which brings an artificial feel to the play.
A chorus of local youngsters provide excellent vocal support both musically and creating eerie sound effects. In the style of silent movies musical director Katherine Wilde accompanies the on-stage action with live piano music. The score, by Roddy B, is a real surprise. Rather than cheerful seasonal ditties his stark tunes bring out the bleak atmosphere of the winter season.
The Secret Garden is a charming and atmospheric adaptation of a classic tale. Audiences might, however, find it to be a radical departure from the usual festive entertainment format. The songs, whilst certainly powerful, are unlikely to appeal to youngsters accustomed to chart hits. More significantly there is very little comedy in the production and no opportunity for audience participation.
The Secret Garden is at the Bury Met until 24 December.
- Dave Cunningham