The Secret Garden review – Theatre at the Tabard

Image above: Daisy Rae as Mary Lennox, Theatre at The Tabard; photographs by Charles Flint

A story about loneliness and loss, and overcoming adversity – which is upbeat, and funny

I was curious to see how a story which relies on switching between two dramatically different locations – one an austere and rather forbidding grand house, and the other a wildly overgrown garden – would work in such a small space as the theatre at the Tabard.

Designer Hazel Owen and lighting designer Nat Green have come up with a creative solution which elevates the production beyond what you would expect from a pub theatre, setting the scene for an excellent production.

Set in the days of the British Raj, Mary Lennox (Daisy Rae, making her professional stage debut) arrives from India to live with her uncle, the emotionally unavailable, but essentially kind and well meaning widower Archibald Craven (Richard Lounds), after her parents die in a cholera outbreak.

The traumatised child has never known love, as her parents had been distant and uninterested in her, and she says her ayah, the servant who had brought her up, “hated me”.

Image above: Mary learns to skip

The story is about loneliness and loss, overcoming adversity, and the healing power of nature. Mary’s misery is mirrored by that of her uncle, still grieving his wife who died ten years earlier, and his son Colin, an invalid, who Mary discovers when she hears the sound of someone crying echoing eerily through the corridors of the house.

This is billed as a ‘family’ show, and it is about children, but there is nothing childish about it. I went with a ten year old, Justin, a fifteen year old, Victoria, and another adult, and we all enjoyed it immensely. Justin and Victoria had no idea what to expect, but found it funny, moving and surprising as the story unfolded in ways they did not anticipate. Both said they would recommend it to friends.

The story, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is a classic which has been reproduced over and over in film and TV. This very strong cast did it justice, contributing equally to its success.

Daisy Rae plays Mary as a brittle, defensive and quite unpleasant child who physically relaxes and psychologically recovers as she is welcomed by her warm and generous maid Martha Sowerby (Mari Luz Cervantes) and her kind and easy going brother Dickon (Jordan Rising).

She is rejuvenated by the fresh air and rugged openness of the Yorkshire moors and the magic of the ‘secret’ garden. She even begins to pick up their thick Yorkshire accent (a nice touch).

Justin was impressed by how “tense” Daisy made the atmosphere.

READ ALSO: Interview with Daisy Rae, playing the lead role in The Secret Garden at the Tabard

Image above: Jordan Rising as Dickon and Daisy Mae as Mary, in the snow

Jordan Rising owns the stage, as he is completely relaxed, transforming the tiny theatre space into the wide open moors just by his presence. He is helped by some very cute puppets playing the wild animals and birds he befriends.

Sam McHale plays Colin as a petulant and imperious self-pitying brat, starved of love and attention and terrified that he will die before he reaches adulthood, yet he provides some hilarious moments as well as moving ones. Victoria and I both admit to having shed a tear at a particular moment.

Image above: Sam McHale and Daisy Rae as Colin and Mary with animal puppets created by Hazel Owen

Richard Lounds doubles as both the sensitive and aristocratic Archibald Craven and plain talking gardener Ben Weatherstaff, switching characters with ease.

Freya Alderson doubles as Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper, and the chief puppeteer, in charge of the robin, who is really the star of the show.

If I had any criticism at all, I wish they had made more of the backstory of Mary’s life in India. In the original story it was not just the cholera outbreak which brought her to England, but the violent clashes which characterised the end of British rule in India.

There is a passing reference to it, with noise and the suggestion of fire in Mary’s nightmare when she first arrives, but it is not explained. The book has as much to say about class and empire as it does about the characters’ personal stories.

But that is just a minor quibble.

Image above: Daisy Rae as Mary and Sam McHale as Colin, enjoying the secret garden

Director Simon Reilly has developed a strong tradition of producing family friendly Christmas stories as an alternative to pantomime – classics which have included The Famous Five, Stig of the Dump, Just So and last year’s Five Children and It.

As a story about displacement and the jarring clash of cultures experienced by a refugee, The Secret Garden is startlingly relevant, even though it was written over a hundred years ago.  This production deserves to be just as popular as Theatre at the Tabard’s previous Christmas shows.

The Secret Garden runs until 31 December.

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