First published in The Times, Wednesday February 26 2020
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel was only a minor success when it was first published in 1911, but its reputation has since eclipsed that of her other books for children. The young protagonists are gratifyingly complex, there is a gothic edge to the atmosphere and there is something timeless in the story’s themes of healing and rejuvenation.
Adapting beloved works of fiction for the stage is always fraught with risk, but Rosalind Sydney, the adaptor and co-director of this new show from Red Bridge Arts, approaches the source material with a loving lack of reverence.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
For starters, Sydney has pared the original back to its dramatic essentials, bringing the show’s running time in at a single, speedy hour, while refreshing key elements of the story. Mary, the orphaned central character, engagingly played here by Itxaso Moreno, no longer hails from colonial India, but has survived a war. When she arrives in Scotland as the guest of her absentee uncle, there is a pointed contrast between her punkish, ever-vigilant intensity and the buttoned-up residents of Misselthwaite Manor.
At first, Moreno’s Mary is a wide-eyed ghost haunting the neglected country pile, creeping from room to room and eavesdropping on conversations between the good-natured maid, Martha (Sarah Miele), and Gavin Jon Wright’s formidable housekeeper, Mrs Medlock. When she stumbles upon the hidden garden that was planted and tended by Mrs Craven, the late former mistress of the house, she begins to enjoy life again, remembering her natural exuberance and forging rewarding friendships, including with Martha’s brother, Dickon, and her anxious, agoraphobic cousin, Colin.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Sydney, her co-director Ian Cameron and the cast of three revitalise Hodgson Burnett’s tale with great levity and generosity of spirit. The script is spare, with the production drawing on lovely passages of movement, directed by Robbie Synge, and Danny Krass’s evocative sound design, in its storytelling. The scenes in the secret garden are especially compelling: Karen Tennant’s simple set gradually comes alive with lush greenery while the actors spill from the stage into the auditorium in their quest to identify new flora and fauna – much to the delight of the attentive young audience.
Touring to March 8. Redbridgearts.co.uk