Secret Garden recalls childhood longings

Written by Louisa Davison.

James Laurence Hunter as Dickon with Captain the fox in a scene from The Secret GardenJames Laurence Hunter as Dickon with Captain the fox in a scene from The Secret GardenReview

Watching Proteus Theatre's production of The Secret Garden (Thursday 8 November) reminded me of my own childhood longings to have a little hidden place, with a swing, roses and a wall that caught the summer's sun.

Wasn't going to happen living in a council flat (boo-hoo me). But remembering the allure of such a garden illustrated how this show captured the magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett's much loved novel.

For those (like me) who haven't read the book since a long-gone childhood, the basic story is of an angry ten-year-old Mary who arrives in a cold, wet Yorkshire from hot, dusty, exotic India, living a previously pampered but lonely life in an early twentieth century colonial household.

After her parents and servants die from cholera, Mary is taken on by her uncle who has never recovered from his own bereavement, that of his wife.

Mary is looked after by housekeeper, Martha, and makes friends with her brothers, William and Dickon, the gardener Ben and the garden's tame robin. Mary discovers the secret garden, locked up and forbidden to be used for the last ten years by Mary's uncle as it was his wife's beloved place. Mary also discovers her cousin Colin, hidden away and bedridden from a mystery illness. The sharing and caring of the secret garden brings the household together and heals the sadness that has festered for so long.

This is a wonderful production for its size. Usually in a small to mid-scale performance some part of the show suffers. But here the acting is spot on, the cast big enough, the set magical, the music performed live, and the puppetry top notch.

My six year old, who's just old enough to cope with a 7pm start, was riveted from start to finish with a look of delight and wonder, despite red tired eyes at the end. I asked him what his favourite bit was, and he said 'cawing like crows' (there was a bit of audience participation) and 'all of it'.

The highlights for me was the adaptable set - which really brought the magic alive - Captain the talking puppet fox, and the warm relationship within the cast which had me believing in a family that could be both healed by the garden and each other. The spacewok - real name 'hang drum' - that formed part of an exotic ensemble of instruments, also deserves a mention.

Kudos to director Mary Swan and her team for bringing this adaptation to the stage, and for Marlborough's Theatre on the Hill for presenting a show that truly appeals to all ages.