The Secret Garden


Theatre at the Tabard

THE SECRET GARDEN at Theatre at the Tabard


“above all the show is a heart-warming tale where the messages do not overpower in the slightest”

Let us step back in time. It doesn’t have to be a century. Two or three decades will just about do. If you’re old enough, you will be looking through tinted glasses at a misremembered landscape strewn with innocent pastimes and simple pleasures, unencumbered by material covetousness and technological hunger. We are all familiar with those platitudinal posts on social media that compare and contrast ‘then-and-now’ childhoods. Or invite us to ‘name one thing you could bring back from (choose your decade here) that doesn’t exist anymore’. It is all a game, but at heart we all, at one point or another, seek out the comfort of nostalgia. Well, here’s a short cut for you: the current ‘Theatre at the Tabard’ production of “The Secret Garden” will take you straight there.

Without succumbing to any festive trappings, Simon Reilly’s seasonal offering, adapted by Louise Haddington from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, opens like an Edwardian Christmas card. Old fashioned, but not dated. The heart is in the story telling, the humour and the message. The premise might be quite unfamiliar to most twenty-first century children, but this interpretation makes the characters’ situations instantly understandable. At its core is Mary Lennox, the orphaned girl sent to live in the imposing Yorkshire country manor, the home of her reclusive uncle. Daisy Rae captures well the initial wide-eyed alarm at the unfamiliar. Initially a cantankerous old woman trapped inside a young girl’s body, we forgive her ways as we witness her learning and rejuvenating. Rae generously relinquishes lead role status, allowing as much importance to be attached to the others. Most notably Jordan Rising, as the young Dickon, who nurtures Mary, who in turn nurtures and helps heal Sam McHale’s quirky Colin – her bed ridden cousin. Life is austere, but not devoid of devotion and kindness. Mari Luz Cervantes, as Martha the maid, demonstrates a winning tolerance that blossoms into friendship. A companionship shared by Freya Alderson’s housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, albeit from a respectful distance.

Reilly teases little nuances from his cast that add an extra layer to the personalities. Mrs Medlock occasionally, almost subconsciously, pats Mary like a rescue-dog. Rae’s subtle expression of bewilderment when she utters the word ‘thank you’ for the first time. When Mary meets her uncle Archibald for the first time, we are quite moved by the suppressed emotion. A touch too young for the role perhaps, Richard Lounds still manages to convey a reserved gravitas that barely conceals the grief he still feels ten years after losing his wife. Lounds doubles as the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, for which he is more suited.

It is a story of healing. Gentle. A slow burner, lit by embers rather than fire. As Mary slowly thaws, we are kept warm. The show is well aware of its audience and plays to it, pushing no boundaries but blossoming within its own confines, like the eponymous Secret Garden itself. Simple devices shift the action from the manor’s interior out into the garden, underscored by Nick Gilbert’s suggestive music. Hazel Owen’s design matches the modesty but delivers a remarkable, show-stopping reveal. Complemented by Nat Green’s lighting, a fairy-tale sprinkling of magic lays a sheen on what could potentially be a dusty tale.

The feelgood factor crawls its way under our skin, and once there it stays. Burnett’s messages are timeless, and in this interpretation, they are a celebration rather than a sneer. The housekeeper declares that children should not be ‘looked after too much’. They need ‘fresh air and liberty’. A poetic echo of our modern-day soapbox reprovals. But above all the show is a heart-warming tale where the messages do not overpower in the slightest. Instead, they are camouflaged within the entertainment. It is simple magic. And it is simply magic.


THE SECRET GARDEN at Theatre at the Tabard

Reviewed on 13th December 2023

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Charles Flint



Previously reviewed at this venue:

About Bill | ★★★★★ | August 2023

The Secret Garden<

The Secret Garden<

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