Following the previous literary adaptations for Christmas from the Tobacco Factory - Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and last year's steamy hit, The Jungle Book - comes the Edwardian classic The Secret Garden.
Following the previous literary adaptations for Christmas from the Tobacco Factory - Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and last year's steamy hit, The Jungle Book - comes the Edwardian classic The Secret Garden. All have been adapted by the artistic director, Dan Danson. This year's certainly diverted the 160 primary school kids I sat with.
This famous 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett still exerts an uncanny pull, perhaps because it deals with that most pervasive form of child abuse - neglect. Orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, Mary arrives, haughty as you please, at Misselthwaite Manor to live with her reclusive, hunchbacked, grief-stricken widowed uncle. Sorrow pervades the dingy mansion - but not for long.
Mary eventually meets her ailing young cousin, Colin - heir presumptive to both the manor and his reclusive dad's spinal condition. His bedroom tantrums - Christopher Duncan really lets rip - provide the comic highlights as the lad waits for his hump to grow.
Far from turning into a bed-ridden camel as expected, he grows into better health thanks to the fertile soil of friendship and the magical flower-power properties of the hidden garden they've been forbidden to enter.
Dickon, the common moorland boy, is a young Yorkshire Doctor Dolittle in tweeds. He talks to the animals and, with Mary, helps to restore the garden - represented by an ivy-clad door and a mound of artificial grass with hidden blooms that pop up on cue. It's the garden that contains their escape from the fallen adult world. Its fluffier inhabitants are a human-sized hopping robin and a splendid fox - both beasts causing deep joy in the row of moppets I sat in.
The cast is good. Mary is played by the dark and forthright Cristina Catalina. Jonathan Pembroke doubles up as the uncle and the prissy doctor, with Jonathan Broadbent as the eager-faced young Dickon. The final tableau, complete with a song, is as joyful as it should be. One even feels sorry for the ghastly housekeeper, Mrs Medlock (a suitably starchy Julia Righton in the film version's Maggie Smith role).
Directed by Richard Da Costa, this gets the story done and dusted in two hours - and it doesn't shirk politically incorrect words such as "cripple". It's a lot less windy than the RSC's recent and vast musical version, which included some superfluous ghosts and an unnecessary amount of singing. Children and adults will enjoy this less faithful and unpretentious staging of an evergreen and dependable yarn with an old-fashioned happy ending.
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