Thank goodness for Manchester's Library Theatre, which takes the opportunity to present children with something a bit more intellectually challenging and even morally weighty than pantomime at this time of year. Not that its production of Tom's Midnight Garden is at all worthy. Quite the contrary, it's a delight.
Philippa Pearce's story of the boy, Tom whose world turns upside down when he hears a grandfather clock strike 13 was first published in the 1950s, the period in which the adventure is set. Although David Wood's adroit adaptation has done nothing to modernise it, in this haunting production at least the tale seems timeless in its ability to enthrall and enchant.
The television versions (three at least over the years) may have had big budgets to splash on grand mansions, lavish gardens, gleaming, winged angels and panoramic views from Ely Cathedral tower. Even so, Roger Haines's simple, noirish production is none the worse for its paucity of set and props. Liam Steel, co-director with Haines, has been responsible for the show's superbly integrated movement and innovative choreography, which is meticulously tailored to both the chronologically challenging narrative and the many scenes through which it passes forwards and backwards in time, and at a varying pace.
With the exception of those playing Tom and the lonely Victorian orphan with whom he makes friends, Hatty, the eight-strong cast double up in named roles as well as representing a kind of anonymous Greek chorus. Costumed in drab grey overcoats and hats and brandishing walking sticks, they create a perfectly synchronised team of ghostly scene-creators and scene-shifters. Bars on a window, sweet-pea frames, greenhouse, underground tunnel, horse and carriage there's apparently no limit to this ensemble's versatility as they morph into a sinister chorus of nightmare beings casting an unsettling spell on proceedings.
The swivelling from 1950s life where Tom, quarantined for measles, is ensconced in a grim little flat with his boring uncle and aunt to a parallel dimension in Victorian times has little of the glitz we associate with time-travel today, but rather a subtle magic. Arthur Wilson makes a credible young Tom, while Claire Redcliffe is a vulnerable Hatty, so blanched in look and so fragile that you begin to believe she could be a ghost. Carolyn Tompkinson creates a perfect parody of a 1950s housewife, while Helen Ryan switches smoothly from the old landlady whose clock has such supernatural power to the heartless guardian, stingy in everything except constant reminders of her "charity" towards Hatty.
Richard Taylor's substantial musical score plays a vital role in establishing mood and atmosphere, while Jamie Vartan's monochrome set conveys the sunlit garden through suggestion, with clever use of dappled shadow. Scrooge seems to have had a hand in the lighting, which is permanently muted to great theatrical effect, however. The transformations between the two worlds and their inhabitants become increasingly complex as Hatty ages faster than Tom and he becomes temporarily trapped in the past. Who and what is real becomes a troubling issue, as time and reality threaten to spin out of control. The garden, with its ancient sundial wall and mighty tree, takes on a ghostly element as it appears to be a projection from the elderly landlady's memory. But never do we feel manipulated, merely intrigued. And the packed audience of children who screamed and giggled in the opening few minutes were quickly silenced by this evocative story of childhood and growing up. Like Tom, they appeared to want to stay in this fantastical midnight garden for ever.
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