Tag Archives: Avita Jay



Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

THE SECRET GARDEN at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


“With a strong ensemble cast directed tightly by Anna Himali Howard the first act was a delight”

A normal child would cry but Mary Lennox is not a “normal child” as we discover in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden, in this new stage version by Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard.

1903 during the British Raj, is where we meet the 10-year-old Mary, ignored by her glittering parents; as her Indian mother and British army father party hard, living their colonial life – and literally dying overnight as they chose to ignore the “unimportant” servants dying of the cholera spreading through their house.

The orphaned Mary is unceremoniously shipped to England to live in her uncle’s stately home on the Yorkshire Moors. A broken-hearted house that is full of secrets, which the staff are not very good at keeping hidden from the tenacious and contrary Mary.

Left to make her own entertainment, Mary discovers a secret garden with the help of a friendly robin. Overgrown and unloved for years, it is a forbidden garden. And so, begins the enduring tale of broken hearts healed through nature as all learn how, with the right tending and care, they can bloom and be loved, like the garden.

In what should have been the perfect setting for The Secret Garden, in the open air with nature all around, the production does not deliver on the expected magic as the secret garden grows and thrives – and does not use the natural setting.

The set designed by Leslie Travers starts off so beautifully but by the time the clunky dark earth filled empty flower beds on squeaking iron wheels are pushed onstage; and seeing the not-disabled friendly secret door into the garden fail to fit Colin and their wheelchair through it, making the character + chair go through the “wall”, rather than go through the actual secret door into the secret garden, the magic has disappeared. The Indian paper chains and flowers were pretty but not enough to be magical, and the lovely Indian inspired powder paint thrown onto the back of the set was too little and too late in the show – and could not be seen by most of the audience.

There is magic in the creation of the robin played beautifully by Sharan Phull from the moment she pops up on top of the very high garden wall and charms with Indian song and dance, with a hennaed red breast on each of her hands, used as the sweet robin flittering from branch to branch. And for me, true open air theatre magic happened as a real robin decided to watch stage left on the speaker!

Other puppetry was made from transforming a black shawl into a crow, a fur stole into a grey squirrel and a jumper to a fox, lovingly played by the cast.

Richard Clews as the old loyal gardener Ben Weatherstaff and Amanda Hadingue as Mrs Medlock, in this production, a not quite so formidable housekeeper, are both classic perfect performances. Molly Hewitt-Richards as Martha has laugh out loud moments of natural comedy in her performance. And the word moor, pronounced “moo-er” by all three with their strong Yorkshire accent, is used to amusing effect throughout.

With a strong ensemble cast directed tightly by Anna Himali Howard the first act was a delight.

But the second act rambled by bringing in to play new storylines including a new love development between Colin and Dicken; and an AWOL aunt Padma (sister to both Mary and Colin’s dead mothers) joining the children in the secret garden, which again somewhat breaks the spell of who enters the garden to help everything grow.

There was a tacit point to introducing this new character, as the three Indian sisters had clearly chosen different paths, two by marrying rich Englishmen as both Mary and Colin’s dead mothers had; or fighting against the British Raj as Aunt Padma (Archana Ramaswamy) appears to have done.

This production attempts to show harsh differences between upper and lower classes, a hard call to mix into The Secret Garden. Colin (Theo Angel) must come to terms with the realisation that he will never walk and will always be in a wheelchair. So how could his disabled father Lord Craven (Jack Humphrey) ever love him, as his father is only interested in searching the world to find a cure for his son? Colin’s uncle Dr Craven (George Fletcher) also has a disability – the upper classes hide away disability. And then there is happy Dicken (Brydie Service) who uses a walking stick, yet everyone loves him, and he is called magical….

The script focuses on all the various characters’ disabilities – and the denouement of this production is that it is alright “not to be perfect” – but ultimately it is the parents who are to blame, depending on how they treat disabilities and differences when their offspring are young. Perfectly Harsh.

The star of the night is Hannah Khalique-Frown as Mary Lennox, playing this complex child with complete believability, rarely seen when an adult plays a 10-year-old. And by the end of The Secret Garden, you believe that her Mary cries real tears, as any loved normal child would.


THE SECRET GARDEN at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Reviewed on 25th June 2024

by Debbie Rich

Photography by Alex Brenner








Previously reviewed at this venue:

TWELFTH NIGHT | ★★★★★ | May 2024
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES | ★★★★★ | August 2023
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND | ★★★★ | May 2023
LEGALLY BLONDE | ★★★ | May 2022
ROMEO AND JULIET | ★★★★ | June 2021



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Bush Theatre



Bush Theatre

Reviewed – 30th June 2022



“a sharp and emotionally impactful piece of work”


Favour, a new co-production between The Bush Theatre and Clean Break written by Ambreen Razia, is a tight and heartfelt drama following a working-class Muslim family in East London. It deftly engages with sweeping themes of addiction and its manifestation, mental illness and its effects on parenting, and the connections between social marginalization and the criminal justice system, at the granular and interpersonal level.

The play understands the notion of retributive justice not simply as a harmful status quo that is enforced by the criminal justice system, but as a social norm that bleeds into our familial relationships.

Aleena returns from prison to her mother Noor and daughter Leila. She quarrels with Noor over the way she ought to reintegrate with society, and is more permissive with Leila as she attempts to reclaim her role as primary parent, leading to a conflict of authority. As tensions build, doubt is cast on Aleena’s ability to parent, as well as the circumstances of her incarceration. Though Favour’s plot has its twists and turns, the play is driven chiefly by its layered characters and their complex relationships.

Leila is on the precipice of figuring out what she wants from her life and the people in it. In the hands of Ashna Rabheru, she is equally timid and expressive. Leila is comfortable in the world that her Grandmother, Noor, has built for her—her school, her masjid, the rituals of Islam—even though she bristles with it at times. Simultaneously, she is drawn to the visible affection her mother shows her. Most of all, Leila has not yet discarded the urge to please the people she cares about the most, at the expense of her own wants and needs.

Noor understands and meets Leila’s needs as best as she can, but is followed by a spectre of shame and judgement cast by her surrounding community. Throughout the course of the play, she feels equally motivated by that shame and genuine concern for Leila’s wellbeing. She has a penchant for tradition and order, though she seems to privately understand their pitfalls. Renu Brindle plays Noor with lived-in nuance.

Aleena rages at the same community, their judgement and hypocrisy, at a mother who is unable to show her affection, at the clutches of the carceral state that hold on even after her release from prison. Aleena’s wit is biting and acerbic, though not always well-aimed, and Avita Jay brings her to life with boundless energy and verve. Amid her sharp perception, Aleena often cannot see past her own limitations or her projected desires for Leila.

Fozia, Noor’s sister, serves as comic relief and is played with specificity and perfect timing by Rina Fatania. She also, as a deeply flawed pillar of the community, metaphorically conveys the hollowness of middle class respectability.

The tension that Razia plots between the central characters remains constant throughout Favour, even in its most tender and comedic moments. This tension is aided by the expert co-direction of Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram. They manage physical space with care, crafting uncomfortable triangular chasms between characters and invasions or personal space when appropriate.

The stagecraft, spearheaded by lighting designer Sally Ferguson and set & costume designer Liz Whitbread, hits its peaks when it dips into the surreal. The scene where Aleena attempts to build a fantasy life for Leila brims with campy pleasure and impossibility—a couch becomes a pink salon chair with glowing trim, a mocktail rotates into view from the back wall of the set.

The ending with respect to Noor and Aleena’s relationship feels a little too neat, and potentially unearned. Favour on the whole however, remains a sharp and emotionally impactful piece of work.



Reviewed by JC Kerr

Photography by Suzi Corker



Bush Theatre


Previously reviewed at this venue:
Lava | ★★★★ | July 2021


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