The Secret Garden: Spring Version, Ambassadors Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s adaptation of the children’s classic novel The Secret Garden is perfect material for a summer holiday theatrical treat. Telling the story of young Mary Lennox who, orphaned by a cholera outbreak in India, is sent to the dark and foreboding Mistlethwaite Manor under the guardianship of her withdrawn uncle, Frances Hodgson-Barnett’s book provides plenty of storylines of people trapped – by expectations, by grief, by lack of humanity – that all require some healing time in the eponymous garden to blossom.

British Theatre Academy is presenting a ‘Spring Version’ of the original Broadway score, reducing the full-length musical into a 70-minute, single act production that allows its large rotating cast to present up to three performances a day and giving as many BTA students as possible the experience of performing in the West End. Only two roles – that of Mary’s uncle Archibald (George Mulryan) and his doctor brother, Neville (Stuart Nunn) are to be played by a single actor. All others will be played by multiple performers throughout the show’s run – but if those performing on press night are anything to go by, they should all entertain highly.

The Yorkshire of Hodgson-Burnett’s novel has a quasi-magical quality, such that exposure to its air can soften the truculent Mary’s temperament and heal her sickly cousin, Colin. Prolonged exposure may explain the delightful charms of Mary’s maid Martha, played by Samantha Bigley as a warm, giggly big sister type, and her animal whisperer brother Dickon, who in the hands of Matthew Nicholas is an engaging, gangly mystic. Together, the pair brings out what is only implied in the original novel, that their love and trust in the young children is the true redemptive force at work.

In contrast, Mulryan’s grief-stricken hunchback Archibald is a distant, broken man who, already unable to cope with the walled garden in which his wife died, flees the house when he realises his niece reminds him too much of his precious Lily. The fractious relationship between Archibald and Nunn’s Neville, largely an invention for the musical, forms a driving tension which the novel, for all its pleasures, substantially lacks. Together, the actors offer hints of an interesting dynamic – most notably in the classic duet Lily’s Eyes, which has since become a classic cabaret number for an array of musical performers.

Any musical with two child leads stands or falls on those central performances, though – and both Mary and Colin must start as horrible, spoilt children before softening, taking the audience with them at all stages. It can be a big ask, but under director Rupert Hands’s tutelage, press night performers Alana Hinge and Sam Procter really excel. Both performers have a grasp of their character and a sense of timing that can bring out some of the comic elements that Marsha Norman distills from Hodgson-Burnett’s original dialogue. Together, they help induce a feeling to see Norman and Simon’s full-length musical, the better to spend time in this world.

As a foundation for possible careers within this industry, this BTA production succeeds for both performers and audiences. There are several cast members here who will, I am sure, be gracing professional stages in years to come, and pleasing audiences as much as they do here.