Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Secret Garden

Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, book & lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon
The British Theatre Academy
Ambassadors Theatre

One of the Marys with her spirit parents Credit: Roy Tan

This is a shortened version of the Tony Award-winning musical aimed at youngsters and performed by a rotating cast drawn from an ensemble of 300 young performers.

They are drawn from The British Theatre Academy, which gives training and performance opportunites under professional conditions to young people under 23 (in their phrase) “regardless of socioeconomic background.”

Hodgson Burnett’s century-old novel is the story of Mary Lennox, a little girl orphaned aged 10 while living in India when her parents succumb to an outbreak of cholera. She is sent back to England to live with a widower uncle she has never met who has a sickly little son and who finds her presence painful because she reminds him so much of his lost wife.

It is not exactly a happy family but things change when Mary discovers a secret garden. It has been locked and neglected because Mary’s aunt died there but now it and they are brought back to blossom. This 75-minute, single-act version retains most of the songs in the original musical; a tuneful delight, they often seem to echo old English ballads with a duet for Uncle Archibald and his dead wife Lily especially effective.

There is plenty of Edwardian sentiment, though no time for the book’s religious and philosophical elements (just as well perhaps), nor for any real character development, so both Mary and her sick cousin Colin change almost instantly from petulant horrors to darlings under the magic of the garden.

After a brief scene in India where Mary tries to charm a snake, the scene shifts to Yorkshire with a flurry of dustsheets that scatters autumn leaves everywhere with the help of a chorus of young performers. They don’t seem to have any other real purpose other than to get more of the ensemble on stage, but director Rupert Hands uses them to add style to his production which has to play with the scaffolds of the theatre’s evening show Stomp pushed away behind a curtain.

Perhaps these supernumeraries are also good-intentioned ghosts for Mary’s parents who appear to be hovering in the background watching over her (more attentive than they were when alive) and Aunt Lily’s spirit both steps out of her portrait and appears in husband Archibald’s memory, contriving to provide Mary with the key to her garden.

While older, more experience members of the company show greater stage sense, most of the fledgling talents I saw hadn’t yet made the characters their own and nearly everyone needed much more projection. That didn’t stop them being a hit with an enthusiastic audience.

As a West End show, this leaves something to be desired but it isn’t asking the usual West End prices so a little indulgence is allowable and there is a special pleasure in seeing youngsters so thoroughly enjoying the opportunity that this production gives them.

Of those whom I saw, I don’t know who played what, the programme lists all of them without identification for particular performances, but you can’t help wondering which of these talents being nurtured have a theatrical future ahead of them.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton