A folk-rock musical with an exquisite cast, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic tale by has been completely reimagined for today’s audience. Close harmonies and haunting melodies set the tone for a dark first act, but by the end of act two, an overall message of positivity has blossomed, rather like The Secret Garden itself, into a tale of hope, love and friendship.
An energetic but emotionally-charged performance combined with a state-of-the-art set created an incredibly immersive atmosphere, inviting audiences to become a fly on the walled garden of a Victorian manor house, stricken by grief.
A cast of impeccable actor-musicians displayed their talents across instruments from piano-accordion through to violin and ukulele, providing a wall of sound which far exceeded the number of actors on stage.
Transforming Lucy Simon’s original score to reflect a more rustic and contemporary vibe, director Dominic Shaw has succeeded in his aim to create a sense of community.
This was evident both on and off-stage – with the cast even sitting together, camp-fire style, to play modern pop classics to the audience during the interval. Their happiness and clear love of performing together was truly a joy to behold.
Juxtaposing upbeat folk-rock ballads with haunting chants and spiritual Indian charms, the audience was quickly encapsulated into a world of long corridors and empty ballrooms, where recently orphaned Mary Lennox (Daniella Piper) finds herself, living with her reclusive Uncle, Archibald Craven (David Haydn).
Having suffered a loss himself, Craven mourns for his wife Lilly (Jaimie Pruden) who’s stunningly haunting melodies are used as a motif, signposting her ethereal appearances throughout the show. As Mary Lennox explores her new home, she befriends her servant Martha (Jenny O’Leary) and Martha’s Brother, the charmingly impish Dickon (Alex James Ellison.) Eventually Mary Lennox discovers a dark secret within the house, and of course, the garden that will unite them all.
The show treats its audience to a plethora of emotions within quick succession through its incredible storytelling. Heartbreaking duets like ‘Lily’s Eyes’ and ‘How Could I Ever Know?’ left our reviewer struggling to see through the tears, while the hopeful folk group number ‘Wick’ provided some much-needed comic relief in the form of a cheeky fourth-wall break from Alex James Ellison’s Dickon.
Perhaps the stand out performance of the night was from Jaimie Pruden. Her portrayal of the celestial Lilly Craven was a delight – a voice that was left ringing in our reviewer’s ears, long after her spirit left the stage.
For a show that opened with the haunting chant of a ghost and follows the journey of a girl, left orphaned because of cholera, The Secret Garden transforms into a tale of positivity, love and hope, which saw its audience leave the auditorium smiling.
It’s clear to see why the show, which tells the story of Mary Lennox breathing new life into Misselthwaite Manor, was selected by artistic director Iwan Lewis as The Barn Theatre’s inaugural production. The former nissen hut has been lovingly transformed into a stunning 200-seat auditorium with a top-of-the-range lighting and sound system, perfectly demonstrated by The Secret Garden’s storm scene.
The combination of an intimate space with a professional performance, which could easily delight audiences in the West End, meant that it wasn’t just the show’s ghosts who left us with goose bumps.
The striking use of puppets throughout the performance is particularly captivating. Designed by puppet-maker Elliot Ditton using rope, burlap and hessian, the puppets, which represent a number of ghostly characters throughout the show, wouldn’t look out of place in a Tim Burton movie.
The Barn Theatre is a producing house, where performances are created in-house, rather than being a place for travelling theatre companies to perform. The Secret Garden’s cast is made up of 12 professional, London-based performers with credits ranging from Disney Cruise Lines through to Les Misérables and Shakespeare.
The theatre’s aim is to get a Barn Theatre production into the West End by 2023, so if you have a chance to see a show in such a gloriously intimate setting before it hits the big time, don’t miss out!
By Melissa Hamblett
Thursday 22 March 2018
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