At a time when the RSC is riding high with its epic sweep of Shakespeare's entire cycle of history plays, it’s curious that the company's esteemed artistic director Adrian Noble has chosen not to direct any of them but to lend his talents to producing {The Secret Garden::L01939044947}, a ten-year-old Broadway musical version of a classic children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett instead.

He does a good job of it, too – but is this really the way to lead the company from the front, a company whose whole raison d'etre, embodied in its very name, is the work of Britain's pre-eminent dramatist?

In contrast, {The Secret Garden::L01939044947} is slight and simultaneously rather severe stuff indeed, though it is efficiently, even movingly, rendered in the book of Marsha Norman and a score by Lucy Simon that is, at times, drenched in yearning melody. Is there a lovelier song to be heard on a London stage right now than “How Could I Ever Know”? I doubt it.

The show that contains it has a slow-burning, gathering appeal. Initially austere in its forbidding atmosphere, it opens under a cloud of death. A precocious young girl, Mary Lennox, is found orphaned in India after her parents’ death from cholera and is repatriated to Yorkshire to live with her widowed uncle, Archibald Craven. He is himself still hauntingly bereaved by the loss of his wife, Lily (sister to Mary's mother), who died giving birth to an ailing son, Colin. Thus, the stage is set for an evening of grim Victorian realism and, for the first act at least, a relentless gloom pervades.

But the second act charts a dramatic progress towards something that is eventually quite uplifting, even radiant. It is in this act that the show's most resonant melodies take hold – including “Lily's Eyes”, an extraordinary anthem to Archibald's lost wife, which is performed by Archibald (the superb Philip Quast) and his brother, Neville (Peter Polycarpou), who also harboured an unspoken passion for her.

Noble's production is greatly enhanced by the simple, beautiful designs of moving screens by Anthony Ward, and somewhat undermined by the annoyingly folksy peasant dances that Gillian Lynne has supplied. But the strong vocal performances from a cast that also includes Meredith Braun as the late Lily, and Linzi Hateley as a maid – not to mention a couple of stunning child actors in the roles of Mary and Colin – maintain the interest throughout, even when the book and especially the choreography occasionally falters.

Mark Shenton

Note: The following review dates from November 2000 and the play's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Adapted by Marsha Norman from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and set to music by Lucy Simon, The Secret Garden is a musical play for children about death. Director Adrian Noble pulls no punches and the fact of death permeates this show as both adults and children struggle to come to terms with their feelings of grief and loss.

Young Mary Lennox has lost both parents in India to cholera and comes to live in Yorkshire with her uncle Archibald Craven who is crippled by the death of his wife. Archie's son Colin lies in bed, apparently dying, as outside, the secret garden itself appears to have died. But rest assured - before the evening is over spring has arrived, Colin has recovered and both Archie and Mary are coming to terms with their grief, surrounded by roses.

Norman has taken some diabolical liberties with Burnett's sentimental children's novel of 1911, but can be forgiven almost everything for steadfastly avoiding that maudlin sentimentality which is clearly lurking around every corner. Her most controversial decision is to present on stage the singing spirits of Mary's dead parents and Archie's dead wife. This provides her with an easy way to depict that haunting sense of an afterlife which is always beneath the surface in the novel, but left me wanting a more difficult and subtle solution. Is it confusing to have the spirits of the dead wandering over the stage amongst the living? Well, not to the children (who are remarkably visually sophisticated these days), but a number of them had to explain it to their puzzled grandparents during the interval.

Linzi Hateley, as Martha the maid, will no doubt win plaudits for her singing and vivacity but is dramatically unconvincing. She displays the worst stereotype of a "musical comedy performer" rather than an actress living a role. She steps outside of her character to "perform" her songs and that character is played with one eye on the audience, in a stagey, self-conscious way.

However, her performance serves to highlight the quality of the rest of the acting. The children are outstanding. Tamsin Egerton Dick as Mary Lennox (a part she shares on other evenings with Eliza Caird and Natalie Morgan) and Luke Newberry as Colin Craven (a part he shares with Eddie Brown and Adam Clarke) both give performances of remarkable maturity and are entirely dramatically credible.

Because the voices are amplified, it s easy to hear the children without their having to exaggerate their natural performances. But occasionally the amplification of some of the adults is less successful. Philip Quast as Archibald and Peter Polycarpou as his stern and slightly sinister brother Dr Craven, both have powerful voices and, in their duet, the amplified volume was too loud for the music to be heard.

Simon's music is pleasant and appropriate to the genre without ever being outstanding. One remembers not the tunes but the fine orchestral colour, especially of the sensitive woodwind playing. Designer Anthony Ward's excellent set is evocative rather than literal, fluid not substantial.

It would be a harsh critic who called the evening slow; it is measured and evenly paced. A party of 30 primary school children sat directly in front of me. Only at one point did they become restless - during the final love duet between Archie and his dead wife, which was beautifully sung and emotionally telling but which delayed the denouement. Otherwise, the children watched attentively and applauded enthusiastically at the end. Bearing in mind Enid Bylton's dictum that no criticism of children's literature written by anyone over the age of twelve has any value, I shall leave the last word to them.

Robert Hole

The Secret Garden opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29 November 2000 (previews from 13 November) and continued there in repertory until 27 January 2000.