The Secret Garden at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – review

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel is brought to the stage in a brand new adaptation

The cast of The Secret Garden, © Alex Brenner
The cast of The Secret Garden, © Alex Brenner

Nestled into its very own pocket of greenery, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is an intuitive choice for an adaption of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved 1911 children’s book. That story, which writer Holly Robinson and director Anna Himali Howard’s play does not stray too far from, follows ten-year-old Mary Lennox who has been raised in India by distant and neglectful parents. After a cholera outbreak leaves her an orphan, she is shipped to Yorkshire to live with her reclusive uncle at Misselthwaite Manor.

Told by a largely excellent company who mostly remain on stage, narration is passed between performers as a chorus. This makes good use of an engaging company and works well, especially when combined with some propulsive movement design and cleverly used repeating phrases, though there is slightly too much reliance on the cast speaking in unison to summon profundity. Hannah Khalique-Brown as Mary stands out, giving a particularly moving and detailed performance. Molly Hewitt-Richards’ funny and charming housemaid Martha, and Theo Angel’s spiky vulnerability are also played very nicely.

All this is told against Leslie Travers’ set working in gorgeous tandem with Jai Morjaria’s lighting – the changing seasons and times of day summoned luminously onto a wall covered with candles that makes up the majority of the set. An appealing touch is that when the titular garden first opens the cast turns to the real-life foliage beyond the audience, then gradually produce brightly coloured ribbons and paper flowers before finishing with Holi festival-inspired splashes of coloured powder. Khadija Raza’s costumes and Tingying Dong’s sound design also combine English and Indian influences to complete the really quite enchanting staging. There’s a beautiful motif sung by a playful and charismatic Sharan Phull as the robin who guides Mary to the garden (and perhaps a version of this would better serve the ending than the slightly clumsy song that currently wraps it up).

The book is cherished for its humour, characters, and wide-eyed wonder at the power of nature and love as tricksy, sour Mary blossoms alongside her secret garden. As her new friend Dickon tells her with an original line for the play, ‘Anything will grow anywhere with some mindin’’. However the book is also a product of its time with its colonialist framing, troubling racial stereotypes and an ending which sees Mary’s disabled cousin Colin recover through a combination of virtue and fresh air. This adaptation tackles these themes head-on with nuance and kindness without ever becoming dogmatic or sanctimonious about it.

Doctor Priyanka Basu is on board as consultant historian and translator, and a particularly effective decision is to make Mary and Colin dual heritage themselves, changing the lens of the story. And while being outside helps Colin’s physical and mental health, his disability is never magicked away – something the character has to grapple with. Several of the cast are disabled themselves in ways that are part of their characters, and discussed in Robinson’s script, showing that tricky and outdated elements of classic stories need not be ignored. The same themes can be embraced, but in thoughtful, inclusive ways.

This is a lovely, enriching show for families or adults alike that demonstrates that – with some mindin’ – stories can keep growing, just like gardens.

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