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REVIEW: The Secret Garden


Of all the stories that I read to my children when they were small, The Secret Garden left the most indelible mark. Partly it was due to my, very dodgy, attempt to maintain a Yorkshire accent for the dialogue (of which there is a lot); mainly because of the timeless appeal of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel.

 

That appeal is as strong as ever in Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard’s new interpretation at The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. While entirely true to the spirit of the original book, the story has been given some subtle tweaks. Here, the orphaned Mary Lennox had an Indian mama, a detail which highlights the sense of alienation and otherness she feels on arriving in Yorkshire and which makes the infusion of Indian colour and spirit as the story progresses, not least in the role of the robin (played by the superb Sharan Phull), seem very natural. Second, there is no miraculous walking moment from invalid Colin towards his father at the end. This doesn’t in any way lessen the power of the play’s climax; quite the reverse, there was not a dry eye in the house.

 

The leafy setting of the park provides the perfect backdrop. It seems such an obvious story to stage here, it is surprising that it is the first time it has been attempted. The set is simple, a low pale house façade lit up with candles in front of which various wooden doors and soil-filled wooden planters move back and forth on wheels. The cast is superb. Hard to pick out individuals for plaudits as there are no weak links but Hannah Khalique-Brown and Theo Angel as Mary and Colin inhabit their children’s roles hugely convincingly, bringing real depth and humour to their meeting and developing relationship.


The plot moves forward both naturalistically and in a stylized way with the ensemble acting in unison as chorus. It slides between the two beautifully, with cast members also proving excellent puppeteers: Dickon’s animal friends – squirrel, fox, crow – pop up convincingly from worn accessories: a fur stole, a black shawl etc.


The recommended age is 10+ which seems about right. There are moments of real humour but a high octane, laugh-a-minute theatre outing, this is not. It is simply a brilliant story, beautifully and imaginatively re-told by fantastic cast. Whether you take a younger child or a grown up one, let the garden work its magic on a summer's evening. Sublime.


The Secret Garden Regent's Park Open Air Theatre 15 June–20 July. Mon–Sat 7.45pm, Sun 5pm, Thurs, Sat mats 2.15pm. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including interval. Tickets: £15–£60.


Emily Turner, 28 June


Photo credits: Alex Brenner

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