Review: The Secret Garden, The Barn Theatre Cirencester

A lively and emotional actor-musician production of The Secret Garden marks a fantastic debut for the brand new Barn Theatre in the Cotswolds

“I heard someone crying…
Maybe it was me”

After three years renovation and development work, the Barn Theatre in Cirencester opens its doors with a fresh and spirited actor-musician take on The Secret Garden. A passion project of artistic director Iwan Lewis (who once appeared in a youth production of the musical in the town), the 1991 Tony-winning musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel (book and lyrics by Marsha Noman, music by Lucy Simon) has been curiously under-served in terms of major revivals (I saw a fringe version back in 2013) and so proves a canny choice for a new venue seeking to attract an audience. 

It is clear to see that time and thought, and resources, has been invested into the Barn to make it to help it succeed. So Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting design, with all its delightful hidden surprises, benefits from a properly swanky lighting rig that would be the envy of pretty much any off-West-End theatre; so too PJ McEvoy’s projections looking highly professional as they move us around Misselthwaite, from dusty, disused ballrooms to briar-filled nooks.

But for all the technical strength, this Secret Garden blooms because of the creative work that has been ploughed into it. The physical aspects of McEvoy’s design have a deliberately rustic feel, suiting time and place well, reflected in the nature of Elliot Ditton’s puppets. The evocation of an inquisitive robin is gorgeously done but it is the way in which Simon’s score has been thoroughly reinvented that reinforces how this production, and the venture at large, is about about mimicking the Great White Way than creating a new Cotswolds Way.

Musical supervisor John Quirk has overseen a thorough reinvigoration of the music which sees it sit squarely in the contemporary folk scene with ukeleles, violins, clarinets, acoustic guitars and more being wielded by the cast as they sing and dance their way to the heart of the story. Sue Appleby’s onstage musical direction keeps things lively and in a talented ensemble, Alex James Ellison’s puckish Dickon stands out as one to watch, And if the musical credentials here were at all in doubt, spend a little time in the auditorium during the interval to see them jam through a whole raft of audience requests.

Naturally, it helps that the source material is so strong. Hodgson Burnett’s deserved classic of a novel remains remarkable in the way that it deals uncompromisingly with death and disease. And director Dominic Shaw doesn’t shy away from any of the pain of raw grief – David Haydn’s starched Archibald is near-paralysed by the loss of his wife, Daniella Piper lashes out wildly as a precocious Mary uprooted from all she knows with the loss of her family and her Indian home, Celeste de Veazey’s bed-bound Colin is no less vicious as his twin terrors of abandonment and illness hold him prisoner.

But guided by ghosts of the past (imaginatively staged as puppet shows, and led by the piercing beauty of Jaimie Pruden’s voice as Lilly) and the awakening of Mary’s huge generosity of spirit (a highly charismatic turn from Piper), the household painstakingly transforms into a place where a family might flourish once again. Shaw has a clear eye for visually stunning tableaux and as a result, the show is full of gorgeous images that sear themselves onto the mind – the way Colin’s health comes back, a cellist in the spotlight, the discovery of the garden…

Stirring and striking, undoubtedly heart-warming (in the end) but never mawkish, this is a seriously impressive production which suggests the future could be rosy indeed for the Barn Theatre. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
The Secret Garden is running at The Barn Theatre, Cirencester until 15th April

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