The Secret Garden – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Kirsty Reid, August 2018
Two months ago, York city centre was transformed into a kaleidoscope of colour to celebrate the annual flower festival, ‘Bloom’. With floral displays and hidden greenery, it seems fitting then that York Theatre Royal’s summer show is The Secret Garden – one of my all-time favourite children’s books.
I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive at first. Having never seen a stage version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved classic, I wasn’t convinced one could do it justice. But I was wrong.
The stage is set from the moment you walk into the venue, themed decorations make you feel as though you’re walking right out on set. And the enchanting entrance is just the start. With a delightful score and a menagerie of puppets, Jessica Swale’s adaptation has just the right balance of humour, misery and magic.
After a successful run at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick over Christmas, director Liz Stevenson restages the adaptation in Yorkshire – the place at the heart of story.
“Nature and friendship”
For those not familiar with the tale, The Secret Garden follows the life of Mary, an unwanted and lonely child who, following the death of her aristocratic parents, moves from her luxury home in India to Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors.
As newly-orphaned Mary sets about exploring her seemingly-isolated surroundings, she soon discovers a hidden garden, which her bereaved uncle (Chris Jack) locked up years ago following the death of his wife.
Primarily, The Secret Garden is a tale of self-discovery and the healing power of nature and friendship, but Swale doesn’t shy away from the somewhat unpleasant elements of Burnett’s dialogue, as Mary declares “there are two types of people, proper people and serving people.”
“A little dark”
Talking about the production, Stevenson says: “Through the journey of the play we see how Yorkshire’s beautiful landscape and the warmth of its people turn Mary’s life around.”
The music, lighting and stage direction were all on point. The set design, in particular, was impressive to say the least.
From the bedroom of Mary’s supposedly ill cousin, Colin, to the idyllic secret garden, the use of an incredibly versatile, two-storey cube helped avoid the cumbersome scene changes often seen in theatre.
While the show is based on a children’s book, it is, at times, a little dark and may give the little ones a fright. However, the dark elements are short-lived and the appearance of puppetry animals will soon put a smile on adult and children’s faces alike.
“Warmth and humour”
Ella Dunlop is brilliant as the initially self-centred and standoffish Mary, who later flourishes into a kind-hearted young girl with a new lease of life. Having only graduated from college last year, this talented actress surely has a bright future ahead.
Every performance was faultless in this production, and the cast complemented each other perfectly. Maid Martha, played here by Coral Sinclair, brings warmth and humour to the stage, as she does her best to entice young Mary out of her shell. Matthew Durkan is brilliant as nature boy Dickon, with an infectious love for life, and Steven Roberts’ portrayal of self-loathing Colin is spot-on.
Meanwhile, Flo Wilson reprises the role of Mrs Medford she took in the Keswick production, following her recent appearance in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
Though Swale’s adaptation was originally for Keswick, Yorkshire is clearly at the heart of the production – and so it should be. I can’t think of a better setting to re-tell this 100-year-old classic.