The Secret Garden was written, first serialised, then later turned into a book, in 1911. As a result the story can feel a little dated 110 years on. Mary is the spoilt ten year old daughter of rich parents, living in India. When they die from cholera, she is dispatched to England to stay with her uncle in his cheerless house choked with memories. Determined to hate it, she’s obnoxious to the servants and furious with her absent uncle but is eventually won round by a boy who talks to animals and becomes a playful scamp.
Rosalind Sydney and Red Bridge Arts have done a superb job of overhauling the important parts of the story for today’s ten year olds -though this long-since-ten year old also loved it. Where the audience are usually served a long-haired wide-eyed sulky Mary in a pinafore, Itxaso Moreno‘s Mary is spiky haired and brimming with adolescent attitude.
She travels to her uncle’s house – relocated to the wilds of Scotland – by boat, late-running train and a taxi. Servant Martha is temporarily disturbed by Mary’s spikes but starts to win her round with a cheeriness that brooks no opposition. And then Mary meets Dickon, his pockets full of furry waifs and strays, who understands without a word being spoken that Mary is feeling just as lost as his newly rescued mouse.
This retelling is less about the garden – though that still features as the glorious prize – and more about what it is to lose people and feel lost, even when you’re surrounded by people who care. Sydney focuses on Mary, Dickon and Mary’s ailing cousin Colin. Here, author Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s consumptive Colin is swathed in antiseptic white and paranoid about germs in a way that’s comically topical.
Moreno is a firecracker, fizzing with rage at the world and channelling it through hunched shoulders, bitterly kicking heels and the gamut of petulant, impassive expressions that constitute a teenager’s vocabulary. Her dance is a war dance, railing against a world she didn’t create and doesn’t want to live in, making it all the more endearing when Dickon and the chatty robin win her round.
Gavin Joe Wright and Sarah Miele do a beautiful job as everything and everyone else in the story. Wright is curiously mesmerising in tartan and gold-rimmed glasses as housekeeper Mrs Medlock. And what might be the actor’s natural easy grace is given free rein in the big-hearted Dickon. Likewise Miele as the housekeeper’s help, Martha is bubbly, likeable and incapable of holding her tongue.
This is a brilliant production. Door frames pirouette atop a mirrored stage, making the cavernous house with its mysterious tapestry appear before our eyes. Karen Tennant‘s inventive set creates all the locations the story needs, along with a lovely magical plant. Sound (Danny Krass) and light (Mark Doubleday) wonderfully transport the audience from stormy seas to sun-soaked Arcadia.
The storytelling and snappy direction successfully keep the children in the audience engrossed. For lovers of the book, it’s a joyous nostalgia trip. If you’re new to the story, this is all the best bits squished into an hour. AND you can plant the programme when. you’re done with it. What’s not to love?