Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a much beloved children’s classic, a popular subject for TV and film – indeed, a new big screen version looms on the horizon even as I write. This Red Bridge Arts production approaches the story from a fresh and unusual direction, the three-strong cast using clowning techniques to skilfully mine the humour hidden within the text. And before you ask, yes, there is humour there, if you look for it.
After the tragic deaths of her parents in India, (not funny so far!) Mary Lennox (Itxaso Moreno), is sent to England to live in a bleak manor house in Scotland (yes, I know; it’s Yorkshire in the book). Having been raised by family servants, she can barely speak any English and the opening sequence neatly illustrates her bewilderment as she travels by ship to a country that is totally unfamiliar to her. This depiction of Mary as a truculent, obstinate outsider is effectively done – we’re much more used to seeing her portrayed as slightly subdued and uncommunicative, but here her refugee status is more clearly drawn.
Mary is looked after by the family housemaid, Martha (Sarah Mielle), and soon she encounters her twelve-year-old brother, Dickon (Gavin Jon Wright), who seems to have a Dr Doolittle affinity with animals. And then, of course, she meets up with Colin (also played by Mielle), the reclusive son of the house’s widowed owner, Mr Craven. Colin has spent so long indoors, he has become convinced that he cannot walk and consequently never goes outside. But Mary has discovered the titular garden, originally planted by the late Mrs Craven. In his grief, Mr Craven has locked it away from human gaze for years. But nature, it seems, once rediscovered, has amazing transformative powers…
It’s a charming, sprightly and wonderfully prickly production but, with a running time of just one hour, the story virtually sprints past and this adaptation, written and directed by Rosalind Sydney, omits the final, redemptive act. We never encounter the broken-hearted Mr Craven – we’re simply told he’s ‘away on business’ – and surely his transformation is a key feature of the story. I’d love to see this revisited with a longer running time and with that final piece of the puzzle dropped into place.
The youngsters in the audience (at whom this is, of course, aimed) clearly enjoy what they see. I, on the other hand, a somewhat older child, am left wanting more.