Thursday, February 29

The Secret Garden – Guilford School of Acting

The Secret Garden is a musical based on the 1911 novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This enchanting classic of children’s literature is reimagined in brilliant musical style by composer Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The story follows 11 year old Mary Lennox in the early years of the 20th Century, who, orphaned in India is returned to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive Uncle Archibald and his invalid son Colin. The estate, Misselthwaite Manor House’s many wonders include a magic garden which beckons the children with haunting melodies and the “Dreamers,” spirits from Mary’s past who guide her through her new life, dramatizing The Secret Garden’s compelling tale of healing, rebirth and reawakening, forgiveness and renewal. It premiered on Broadway in 1991 winning 3 Tony Awards®, including Best Book of a Musical and 3 Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Book and Orchestrations.

The production ran for 709 performances.

Tonight’s live online performance was directed/choreographed by Shiv Rabheru, Musical Director by Candida Caldicot and was staged by the Guildford School of Acting Final year BA (Hons) Musical Theatre students in collaboration with students on the BA (Hons) Theatre Production and MA Stage and Production Management programmes. It has been almost 14 months in the making due to lockdowns and the effects of Covid-19 pandemic on the Theatre/Arts Industry. But it was well worth the wait!

A perfect start to the reopening of live performance. I feel honoured and blessed to have finally, after 12 months, been able to re immerse myself into live theatre with a musical adaptation of my very favourite children’s book which had gripped me so securely as a child and also, to be able to review live theatre once again. Oh, how I have missed you! The Secret Garden rejuvenated my dormant state and these young performers gave me hope for a bright future.

Set in authentic style in both India and Yorkshire, the true Gothic feel of the production was evident from the first notes of the overture and the darkness of the scene presented. Set design by Stewart J Charlesworth with a two tiered raised rostra upstage, divided into eight boxes allowing the cast thematic isolation yet presence throughout and the ensemble a clear platform to add tone and mood fluently throughout the production. The Lighting Design by Rory Beaton was never obtrusive and heightened the sense of isolation and trauma in Act One with particular effect. In the latter scenes as The Secret Garden becomes the personification of a living being by all the characters who come to know it, the lighting effects added to the magical awakening and re birth. The full ensemble on these scenes were very believable as they nurtured and tended the garden to aid its reawakening.

The Secret Garden is a highly stylised and powerful piece of Musical Theatre. The direction and collaboration of the ensemble in this production is its strength, touches such as the symbolic picture frames and the use of chandeliers for multiple purposes really made this production stylish, sharp and detailed. It was obvious that the levels within, ran complexed and deep and these kept me questioning and engrossed.

‘Come Spirit, Come Charm’ was a very effective number and the lead characters of Mary (Laura Jayne-Hardie), Dickon (Ruairidh McDonald), Martha (Alice Tunningley) and Lily (Alice Sparrow) were hypnotic at this time. Other musical numbers of note I thought where particularly effective were ‘Wick’ with Jayne-Hardie and McDonald and the ‘Final Storm’ that closed Act one. This number left me waiting impatiently for Act two!

Jayne-Hardie showed her skill in the scene in Colin’s bedroom, which had me on the edge of my seat. Jordan Walker as Colin Craven played a very believable role in response and his sincere rendition of ‘Round Shouldered Man’ is one to listen out for.

Ben Weatherstaff played by James Carlisle had just the right amount of comedy and his performance was most entertaining whilst remaining contextual. A mention must go to Harry Singh as the FAKIR, this young man has great stage presence which radiates even through an online performance. Definitely one to watch out for, I found myself constantly drawn to his performance and the red book as the Robin was beautifully used.

The storytelling in The Secret Garden is superb and there isn’t a weak link on the stage. What stands out most about this performance is the commitment and exuberance of the cast. It must feel so amazing to be back on that stage again and this young cast have shown tonight not even a pandemic is going to stop then treading the boards and achieving their goals. Tonight, the cast seemed to want it that little bit more and strive that little bit harder and I felt that clearly. Thank you GSA it was an absolute pleasure to experience and I must admit I did cry a little because it felt so good to experience the buzz of theatre again. I will certainly be watching out for their future productions with anticipation. Please, Join me and support the future of our industry, I promise you, you will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Tracey Bell

Reviewed: 18th May 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

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