This production of The Secret Garden is an admirable project. Students at the British Theatre Academy, which offers young people professional theatre opportunities, are making their West End debut with this truncated, musical version of The Secret Garden.
I have no doubt that some of the cast will continue to be found in the West End and beyond as they grow up. Alana Hinge is excellent as the petulant Mary, giving a mature and subtle performance that lets us see that Mary’s obstinacy and tantrums come from her loneliness.
Samatha Bingley is a warm and comforting Martha, bustling about to look after the house and the strange, surly child who appears from India when her parents die. She has a beautiful singing voice, too, and is a pleasure to watch. George Mulryan as Mary’s Uncle, tortured by the death of his wife, offers a convincing performance of a man who has surrendered himself to grief at the expense of everything else – even his own child.
The ensemble (of 11 children) are tightly drilled and perform with conviction and professionalism. Unfortunately, they don’t have much to do – the plot centres on Mary and her sick cousin, Colin, with Martha and her brother Dickon (Matthew Nicholas) providing support. The chorus complete some rather pointless scene changes which mostly involve moving dust-sheets around, and generally are under-used to the point where they might as well not be onstage at all. The other named characters don’t have much to do, either, and various characters appear onstage as ghosts to round out the numbers and the plot.
It’s not an altogether successful device – Scarlet Smith has a beautiful voice but it’s not enough to hide the fact that she sings the same song over and over again. As the ghost of Lilly, Colin’s mother and Uncle Archie’s great love, her role is to lure them all into her locked-up garden and thus find redemption, health and love. A catchy tune and lots of longing glances lead them all to learn that gardens need love and attention to flourish, just as children do.
It’s a deeply sentimental play – as the book is – but in this shortened version none of the characters really have time to develop. Mary goes from tantrums to happy compliance and Archie from selfish grief to loving father in the course of just over an hour. Hinge charts this journey pretty well (surely she’s a shoe-in when they’re next casting Matilda), but it’s hard to see Archie, who abandons his niece and refuses to see his ill son, as anything but neglectful. His grief is well portrayed but doesn’t excuse his behaviour, and it makes his transformation harder to invest in.
Ultimately, this production feels like a very worthy endeavour, and a great showcase for some young talent. However, to play in the West End is to invite comparisons with other West End productions, and this just doesn’t measure up, despite some strong performances. It feels a bit like watching a school play, and school plays are only enjoyable if you have a link to one of the children onstage.