Take a dysfunctional family. Add a spoilt stuck-up white girl brought up by black servants in the British Raj but now sent back to the UK. Mix in a spooky Victorian mansion on the English moors. Decorate with locked doors and hidden gardens. Send her there.
Yes, all those familiar tropes certainly run through the plot of ‘The Secret Garden’. But the spoilt brat, aka Mary, gradually gains redemption through kindness, friendship and downright curiosity. This already puts the plot a notch or two above your average soap opera.
Mary then finds the lost key to the mansion’s secret garden through her fascination with, and insight about, the natural world and with a bit of help from a quirky robin. And now we’re only a notch away from Buddhafield!
In fact, ‘Secret Garden’, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, only appeared in book form when the author was hitting her mid-sixties. The tale has remained a classic children’s story since its publication in 1911. We can only speculate about her own losses. She was born in Manchester in 1849 but her father died when she was a toddler. At sixteen she emigrated to the United States with her family. Her first son died as a teenager.
Sarah Slator, as director, has pulled out the stops again with this production for This My Theatre. With just a handful of cast to take on multiple role changes, Lily Smith, Madeline Hatt, Simon Stallard and Ethan Taylor animate this story for an audience of around 200 hundred people. They make extraordinary use of puppets and props to create birds in flight, animals in motion. Not to mention their backing of cajon drum, and folkish chants to animate or punctuate the plot.
Dig a bit under the surface and the story carries a message of hope. Colin, apparently wheelchair-bound, finds he can stand again. Meanwhile, his father has a dream that his deceased wife has spoken to him. Mary seems like the catalyst for the change. It’s aimed at kids but adults get the message.
The performance may be a bit long at around 80 minutes. At times, actors need to spill out all the words at speed to be faithful to the script. But some judicious cuts to the text might sharpen the lines and give the cast more scope to create the characters’ feelings through body and posture. Some of us – especially the younger children – began to get restless after an hour.
The Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT) continues to host performances like this in a convivial way. For ‘The Secret Garden’ the stage was split by a flat rope so that a dozen or so children could sit, squat or roll on the astroturf right up front – while never crossing the line. Meanwhile, the odd pigeon walked across the podium and a single prop plane circled overhead. The yew hedges and ornamental shrubs in Dyke Road Park always make BOAT a low stress – and magical – venue. It’s ideal for a secret garden!
Go see it on tour this autumn in secret gardens all around the south!
Photos by This Is My Theatre and edited by Paul Jonas
(Note: as with many performances, BOAT and This is My Theatre group are maintaining certain Covid-19 precautions at venues to keep audiences safe and socially distanced during shows in summer 2021)