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secret garden

The Secret Garden At The Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival’s production of The Secret Garden is often lovely to look at. It boasts some arresting stage pictures, beautiful fantasy costumes (Judith Bowden), and inventive stagecraft. It has a clever set (Beyata Hackborn), effective lighting (Kevin Lamotte), and a solid cast. Yet, for me at least, it remained oddly inert.

The Secret Garden has been adapted by Jay Turvey (who also directed) and Paul Sportelli from the classic children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in 1911.

Set in Edwardian England it tells a fairly standard gothic tale of spoiled orphan Mary Lennox, whose rich colonial parents were wiped out in India along with most of their servants by cholera. Ten-year-old Mary is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven who was married to Mary’s mother’s now deceased sister.

The Yorkshire home to which she is banished and which her uncle seldom visits is suitably grim and filled with secrets, none more creepy than her cousin Colin. Shunned by his father, he has spent his entire life wailing in a locked room, constantly told that he is sickly and will die young.

Then, of course, there is the secret garden of the title, a walled garden that for mysterious reasons is permanently locked, its key lost.

As the story of The Secret Garden unfolds, secrets are revealed, including why the secret garden has been abandoned and locked all these years. Mary gradually warms to her surroundings, discovering that the moor is not as grim as it seems at first. Thanks to a sympathetic servant girl and her younger brother, Dickon, and their caring mum, who lives in the moor, Mary blossoms, discovers the restorative powers of nature, and eventually draws Colin out and into renewed life.

A programme note, in the current fashion, would have it that the themes of isolation in The Secret Garden represent Burnett’s attack on “patriarchal medical practice.” I think the play speaks more to the unspeakable cruelties English upper class parents, mothers and fathers alike, have visited upon their children for hundreds of years, ignoring them, relegating their care to servants, and then banishing them to boarding schools for which the term “Dickensian” seems to have been invented. It’s not too surprising that children have for some generations now responded to a story in which adults behave badly while the kids attempt to cope and eventually emerge as complete human beings

Turvey and Sportelli, have a longstanding collaboration as songwriters and creators of musical theatre, much of it for the Shaw Festival (Turvey directed last season’s spectacular Gypsy). They have found some intriguing ways to bring The Secret Garden to life, including adding occasional music in the form of traditional British songs from years gone by. As director, Turvey, creates some nicely lyrical moments, as when an enchanting full-length portrait of Colin’s mother, who died in childbirth, floats across the stage or when cast members pose as ancestral portraits in the mansion’s dreary hallways.

The Secret Garden cast is first-rate as well. David Adams is just right as the sympathetic gardener Ben Weatherstaff and Sharry Flett is appropriately scary as the martinet housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, while Jacqueline Thair is sweet and lovable as the servant girl Martha.

The kids are good too. Gabriella Sundar Singh as Mary, Drew Plummer as Dickon, and especially Gryphyn Karimloo as the obnoxiously bratty Colin. I wish these roles had been cast with age-appropriate actors, but the Shaw Festival continues to insist on casting adults as ten- and twelve-year-olds.

Given the exigencies of running a large repertory company, casting adults in these roles is no doubt inevitable. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if young people could come to the Royal George and see kids in The Secret Garden who actually looked like them?

Even though Turvey and Sportelli, working with a sterling cast and artistic company, have done yeoman’s service in walking us through the major events of The Secret Garden, the deeper resonances in the story never emerged for me. Since children are wiser in some things than adults, perhaps the many children in the audience had a different experience.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was a dramatist as well as a novelist. She created a stage version of her most famous book, the runaway best-seller “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” The play made her as much money as the book. She also adapted her “A Little Princess” for the stage. Yet she chose not to dramatize “The Secret Garden.” Maybe she knew what she was doing.

The Secret Garden continues at the Royal George Theatre through October 13, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw Festival website.

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[Image: Shaw Festival]

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