“For in the earth, the charm’s at work”
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story The Secret Garden was first made into a musical in the early 1990s with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon but despite an RSC production in 2000, it remains a rarely-performed work. Aria Entertainment and Knockhardy Productions are seeking to redress that with a concert version playing Sunday and Mondays at the King’s Head Theatre Pub.
The story focuses on Mary Lennox, the sole survivor of a cholera attack in her home of the British Raj who unceremoniously shipped back to her closest remaining relative, a disinterested uncle who lives in a vast stately home in Yorkshire. Initially ill-tempered and stubborn, she finds her calling in the restoration of a neglected garden which awakens not only her own good nature but the ailing spirit of her uncle and her sickly cousin Colin.
Although billed as an intimate concert, the reality of Matthew Gould’s production is closer to a semi-staged performance, a choice that has both its benefits and drawbacks. It allows a company of 18 to be utilised effectively, flowing around the small stage space and giving full voice to the sweeping harmonies of Simon’s score. But it also unnecessarily complicates matters as it introduces more elements of the show without their full context, meaning the relationships between the characters aren’t always clear, the nuances of the shifting time periods are lost, the budgetary constraints highlighted.
Which is a shame as when the focus is on the music, The Secret Garden really is an excellent production. Simon’s compositions have a graceful drama and a playful humour, akin to some of Howard Goodall’s work, and they are played exquisitely by David Keefe’s four strong band, wind instruments and cello combining beautifully. And there is excellent singing onstage too, across the board. From the earthy Yorkshire humour of Rachael McCormick’s Martha and Jordan Lee Davies’ Dickon – both names to watch out for – to the experience lent by returning original RSC cast members Amanda Goldthorpe-Hall and Freddie Davies, a vivid sense of emotion comes across from the inhabitants of the Yorkshire manor, elevating this children’s tale into something genuinely stirring.
Zoë Curlett’s Lily haunts the show with a benevolent presence and a crystalline vocal – the use of ghosts and spirits really is a fascinating part of the show, Mona Goodwin’s Ayah also impresses – and as her still-grieving widower, Alexander Evans is highly affecting with a hushed vocal wracked with guilt and pain. And in the roles of Mary and Colin which are alternated, Ana Martin and Zac Donovan came pretty close to stealing the show. Donovan’s wide-eyed charm is just lovely to watch, but there is something exceptional in Martin’s performance that makes me sure that we will be seeing much more of this actress in the future.
Mary is a challenging role, onstage for large swathes of the show during which she undergoes a considerable emotional journey but Martin took it all in her stride with a confidence and professionalism that belies her 13 years. Of particular note was the way in which she sang with her various duetting partners, always closely working with them and the ensemble around her, demonstrating an impressive maturity that will surely stand her in good stead for the future.
Minor misgivings about the semi-staging aside, this production of The Secret Garden really does offer a remarkable opportunity to hear an excellent, if somewhat neglected, piece of musical theatre, delivered to an excellent standard. What one might miss in narrative clarity is more than made up for by the exhilaration of hearing such a large, un-miked company in beautiful harmony at close quarters.