Childhood pleasures for the half-term

<i>Tom's Midnight Garden</i> | Pleasance, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For a special half-term treat, parents should forget the recent film version of Tom's Midnight Garden and seek out Unicorn Theatre for Children's clear, evocative (and first ever) mainstage dramatisation of Philippa Pearce's Fifties classic about a boy's nightly voyage to a Victorian past. Adapted by David Wood, it shows, as much as anything else, that a company normally associated with experimental pieces is equally at home with more traditional, solid, BBC tea-time fare.

For a special half-term treat, parents should forget the recent film version of Tom's Midnight Garden and seek out Unicorn Theatre for Children's clear, evocative (and first ever) mainstage dramatisation of Philippa Pearce's Fifties classic about a boy's nightly voyage to a Victorian past. Adapted by David Wood, it shows, as much as anything else, that a company normally associated with experimental pieces is equally at home with more traditional, solid, BBC tea-time fare.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Tom (Dale Superville) is cooped up in quarantine at his aunt and uncle's house because his brother back home has measles. Weeks of dreary confinement stretch before him, but when the grandfather clock in the hall mysteriously strikes 13, he discovers an enchanting new world: the same house, with its present-day, tatty old concrete backyard, reassumes its Victorian past, with a beautiful garden and only one child who can see him - the orphaned Hatty.

Her unhappiness - she is tormented by her aunt and horrid cousins with such names as Hubert and Edgar - is classically Victorian, and familiar enough to the target eight-and-over audience. What might puzzle them is the disjunctive passage of time. Tom remains the 10-year-old boy we first meet, in neat grey school shorts, garters and polished shoes, but the slippage of years in the other world means Hatty matures, the girlishness so wonderfully conveyed in Debra Penny's performance giving way to the concerns of a young woman being courted.

But, at its best, Jeanine Davies' lighting switches seamlessly between seasons, from dappled garden to icy river or ghostly candlelit interior with spooky nocturnal echoes. The story also offers gentle insight into growing up, the importance and limitations of friendship as well as, perhaps, sexual awakening.

It succeeds, above all else, by being modern without being anachronistic. Hatty's cousins may call her a "silly juggins" and Iain Stuart Robertson's gardener deliver zealous exhortations on Christian morality, but none of this seems alienating and the essentials of the story are never lost. Coupled with Tom's letters to his brother back home, all this heartily reassures the pint-sized audience. They share his excitable confusion, finding answers with him in a production sufficiently mature not to be patronising and lucid enough to tell a lovely story very capably.

Comments