Review: THE SECRET GARDEN SPRING VERSION, Ambassador's Theatre, 3 August 2016

By: Aug. 04, 2016
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The British Theatre Academy make its West End debut with an adaptation of MarSha Norman and Lucy Simon's 1991 Broadway musical, itself an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's much loved novel of 1911.

Though a timeless tale of Dickensian family fracturing and recovery, it felt a curious choice for a show in the summer of Pokemon Go, and I wondered how the young audience would take to its rather prissy characters and melodramatic moments. But, due to careful editing down to a pacy 70 minutes all-through and some clever direction by Rupert Hands that let a bit of 21st-century sass shine through in the performances, the young (and not so young) loved it - especially once they realised that it was okay to clap at the end of a song!

The story is compressed a little and focused primarily on Mary, the spoilt orphan brought to Yorkshire from India to live in her Uncle Archie's Victorian pile with its staff of salt-of-the-earth servants, its strangely passive aggressive doctor and its ghostly night-time sobbing. There's gardens to explore, with one sealed off and out of bounds - which, naturally, draws Mary on - and she's soon discovering its secret and finding the source of the sobs.

With a young cast (none over 23 and children playing the child roles), the singing and acting is inevitably a little uneven - though the quality of the costumes, the superbly appointed venue and brilliantly choreographed scene changes helped to ensure that everyone raised their games to match the "showcase". What an opportunity for everyone involved!

Stuart Nunn gets the right level of sinister threat into his Doctor Craven and sings beautifully, especially with George Mulryan, necessarily a little stiff as the grieving Uncle Archie, on the slightly creepy showstopper, "Lilly's Eyes". Scarlet Smith has the strongest voice on stage as the much-lamented Lilly Craven, appearing in visions and as a portrait evocative of the John Singer Sargent style. Samantha Bingley almost steals the show as a maid straight out of Mary Poppins, a great comic turn, all bosomy hustle and bustle and gritty Northern common sense.

But, carrying even more in this child-friendly version than in the original, the children have to get it right if the morals are to stick. Sam Procter's Colin shows real joy in his transformation and, if we're used these days to a little more verisimilitude in the portrayal of characters with physical disabilities (even ones mostly "in their minds"), then that's a minor quibble in a well-delivered role.

On stage almost throughout and the pivot on which everything in the play turns is Alana Hinge as Mary, the child who grows up in a hurry when she stops scolding and starts listening. Singing, dancing and showing great emotional range - and we do see plenty of Alana as well as Mary, I'm pleased to say - this is excellent work, a tribute to her own skills and dedication and that of the British Theatre Academy. She's a small girl, but a big talent - remember the name!

(Please note - there is a rotating cast of actors filling the child roles.)

Suitable for anyone over the age of 10, this is old-fashioned entertainment, but a fine introduction to the power of theatre and, I hope, perhaps an inspiration to some to leave the stalls and try their hands on the other side of the fourth wall, an environment suffused with the magic to teach all the lessons a child needs to take their place in a world where teamwork, generosity and empathy have never been needed more.

The Secret Garden continues at the Ambassadors Theatre until 31 August.

Read Rupert Hands' blog here