Friday, 5 August 2016
The Secret Garden @ The Ambassadors Theatre
It's remarkable that it took 10 years for such an inherently British musical to make its way across the Atlantic. Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel hit Broadway in 1991 and subsequently won the Tony award for Best Book of a Musical, but didn't reach the West End until 2001 in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Producers Matthew and Stephen Chandler, on behalf of The British Theatre Academy, have now brought the show back to the West End in its 'Spring Version' form that reduces the show to 75 minutes and is geared specifically towards children. It remains as typically British as ever, with its quaint storyline, country garden setting, and score imbued with delicate folk melodies. It's sweet without being saccharine, lovely without being twee.
Even with its young audience in mind, there are enough narrative layers to please young and old alike. The story, of a young orphan who stumbles upon a secret garden belonging to her uncle's dead wife, is full of discovery and wonder. Yet it's also a story of loss and grief, of adults being unable to let go of the past and holding children accountable, of childhood innocence overcoming the pain and cynicism of adulthood.
This production, however, does lean a little too heavily on grief, even though it rapidly whips through the early stages of the story. It all feels a bit plain, with an intentionally grey and dismal set that never quite comes alive in the garden scenes, despite some clever use of choreography in the scene changes. The music, too, sounds too sparse, with piano accompaniment alone stifling Simon's lush melodies. Some extra orchestration would add a touch of enriching magic.
With the emphasis on children, it's fitting that the young actors steal the show: in this particular cast, Alana Hinge's precocious Mary Lennox and Sam Procter's argumentative Colin. As a whole the cast is strong, with adult actors Samantha Bingley (Martha) and Matthew Nicholas (Dickon) amusing in lighthearted comedy roles, and Scarlet Smith sounding sweet yet haunting singing Lilly's repeated refrains to "come to my garden".
Elsewhere, though, the children's chorus are barely used, either singing off-stage or simply aimlessly wandering through scenes. Director Rupert Hands seems unsure of what to do with his cast, torn between the youthful focus and appealing to adults with the show's graver themes. Though the cast do a fine job, this secret garden never quite blossoms as it should.
Watch: The Secret Garden runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 31st August.