The Secret Garden, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Thursday 07 January 2010
There are no silver bells, cockle shells or pretty maids but Mary's garden grows enchantingly in this new musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel. Mary, nimbly portrayed by Jayne Wisener, is certainly a contrary little girl. She's as rudely dismissive of her ayah in India as she is of the maid Martha Sowerby whom she encounters when, suddenly orphaned, she's shipped to England.
Dismayed at the prospect of playing by herself around the wuthering moorland home of her reclusive guardian at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, young Mary blossoms when she discover gardens and gardening. The key to the secret garden becomes the key to her self-discovery and that of her supposedly sickly cousin, Colin.
The Yorkshire setting is a gift to adaptor Garry Lyons whose lyrics allow for some gruff Tyke dialect and a few shafts of typically self-deprecating humour.
Ian Brown's fine staging has a filmic quality, with swift transitions from period interiors to garden exterior, and West Yorkshire Playhouse again shows off its impressively high production values. Ruari Murchison's mansion house dominates, its shifting exterior stone facade complementing the dappled shades of the garden.
As Mary's uncle, David Birrell presents a man whose heart has become petrified with the loss of his wife and the disappointment of a crippled son. That boy, whose miraculous progress from petulant, bedridden patient – as cramped in mind and body as an imprisoned butterfly – to rounded teenager, is superbly embodied by James Gillan. His solo numbers create spontaneous ripples of applause. Josie Walker is a no-nonsense housekeeper, Mark Roper a doughty gardener, and Thomas Aldridge the beguiling young horticulturalist, Dickon. Savannah Stevenson stands out as the feisty maid Martha, not least for her execution of a lilting song-and-skipping number.
Under Stephen Ridley, the little band brings freshness to Tim Sutton's appealing music, a transparent score that is decently structured, has a good match of tune to words and contains some cunning interweaving of melodic strands. And with the subtlest of amplification this Secret Garden doesn't shout its secrets at the audience. Instead, it creates some lovely musical intimacies which enhance the magical sense of human fragility and reality on stage.
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