"This Gorgeous Garden Grows Afresh"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 09/01/12

Every stage version of a book differs from the pictures imagined by its readers but this live production of 'The Secret Garden' is highly imaginative & offers, both to those who know the story & to those who don't, a fresh new world of uplifting entertainment.

Squashing an entire novel into a couple of hours performance demands sacrifices; even whole chunks of the story. But the parts missing from the book are more than made up for by ingenious adaptation. Visual & verbal humour, dances & songs, poetic language, colourful scenery, plus several touches of pathos all adding fresh colour, atmosphere & emotion.

Lynne Forbes & Tamsin Fessey, jointly writing & producing - with script advice from Phil Porter - maintain in this adaptation, an unerring instinct for good stage performance that keeps both the young & less young in the audience, enthralled.

Directing for the first time, Tamsin Fessey can be proud of creating barrow-loads of pleasure by cultivating this selection of fine actors to produce a splendid show.

'The Secret Garden' is not fantasy but a realistic story delving into the troubled souls of young people, unhappy in an unsympathetic world - but a world where adults too, have their troubles. The remedy is to cultivate 'the secret garden' of the soul, while the wonders of nature that enrich every 'piece of earth', inspire a renewal of joy for individuals whose lives have been soiled by despair.

At Dorchester Corn Exchange, first venue of the company's extensive tour, a full house of excited families crowded in to experience the show. The stage set, meticulously designed & built by Matthew Llewellyn Smith mingles indoor furniture with representations of outdoor garden growth & everyday objects are changed unexpectedly, for unusual uses. A chest of drawers becomes a bed; a suitcase & books contain amusing surprises.

Jodie Gardner's floral decoration on fabrics, streamers & costumes with alternative designs on front & back, transform time, place & characters in an instant. Even Polly Beestone's puppets pop up to join in the jollity.

At this first venue of the tour, boys & girls of Dorchester Young Theatre Group swelled the cast to add delightful singing & dancing to the music provided by Tom Ball, frolicking in a fitting prologue that demonstrates childhood happiness against which 'Miss Mary Lennox' appears very miserable & rather horrid, but we soon learn why.

Angel Exit Theatre productions usually include a chorus of 'sprites' or 'friendly spirits,' played by members of the cast, (between scenes in which they play their main characters). The 'sprites' are 'invisible' to the main actors on stage & in The Secret Garden, they enchantingly skip about in seamless choreography, moving furniture, replacing 'props' & generally helping things along. The main characters never notice as the sprites, conspiring secretly with the audience, relish their mischievous pleasure at working 'unseen.' The whole cast form a beautiful ensemble.

'Mary Lennox,' is a girl orphaned & oppressed by misfortune, but we find that deep down beneath her convincing pique & pout, Mary blossoms, becoming truly likeable & even loveable, in Ashleigh Cheadle's thoughtful, engaging & thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Mary is placed in the care of her uncle's housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, a striking woman, dressed in a gorgeous black mourning ensemble, full-length with a large hat & all trimmed in fine black lace. Continues … This terrifying woman is in fact Simon Carroll-Jones, acting superbly & much to be admired for this magnificent female impersonation.

An extremely funny & versatile actor, Simon also plays the sickly boy 'Colin' & tops his 'Mrs Medlock' with Colin's hilarious hypochondria. In both roles, he masters the extreme limit of 'high-camp,' never quite slipping into trite caricature, but indeed, is often truly touching.

Lynne Forbes plays Martha the helpful housemaid, balancing perfectly the light humour of her role with its 'straight' purpose of moving the story forward. Martha's kid brother, Dickon, is also a friend to Mary, skilfully played by Max Mackintosh, with a cheeky grin, simple charm & likeable personality.

Henry Douthwaite is excellent as austere Uncle Archibald, Colin's father, but he also plays big Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener with a 'dodgy back.' At first, both these characters seem rather stern & frightening to Mary & more so, to timid Colin, but they soon grow more sympathetic.

IF this 'garden' has a fault, it has too many 'nice plants' in it.

Everyone in the show is agile, some tumbling & dancing energetically on the busy stage with its colourful scenery, crowded with ingenious furniture. The different moods for various scenes is effectively created by Tom Ball's music combining with excellent lighting designs by Kevin Treacy.

Overall, the whole effect is magical & the full-house audience in Dorchester Corn Exchange, applauded long & loud when the show arrived at its happy ending.

Exactly one hundred years since it was published, there are other adaptations of this much-loved story, but 'The Secret Garden' from Angel Exit is surely among the most entertaining. Five hearts out of five, for a fun-filled professional performance.

5th - 7th Corn Exchange, Dorchester - www.dorchesterfestival.co.uk
10th Savoy Theatre, Monmouth - www.monmouthsavoy.co.uk
11th Theatre Gwaun, Fishguard - www.its4u.org.uk
13th - 14th Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis - www.marinetheatre.com
16th - 18th Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter - www.bikeshedtheatre.co.uk
19th The Theatre, Chipping Norton - www.chippingnortontheatre.co.uk
20th Wedmore Village Hall, Somerset - www.takeart.org
21st Wilvelscombe Primary School, Somerset - www.takeart.org
22nd Roadwater Village Hall, Somerset - www.takeart.org
24th - 25th Waterloo East Theatre, London - www.waterlooeast.co.uk
26th - 27th Mumford Theatre, Cambridge - www.anglia.ac.uk
31st The Bay Theatre, Weymouth College - www.weymouth.ac.uk
5th Buxton Opera House - www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk
10th - 11th Rondo Theatre, Bath - www.rondotheatre.co.uk
13th Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester - www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
15th The Carriageworks, Leeds - www.carriageworkstheatre.org.uk
16th - 17th artsdepot, London - www.artsdepot.co.uk (NB the matinee is at 2pm, not 3pm as it says on publicity)
18th Market Theatre, Ledbury - www.themarkettheatre.com
20th - 21st Little Theatre, Torquay - www.toadstheatre.co.uk
22nd The Brewhouse, Taunton - www.thebrewhouse.net
23rd - 25th Bridport Arts Centre - www.bridport-arts.com/
29th Salisbury Arts Centre - www.salisburyartscentre.co.uk
2nd Bredhurst Village Hall, Kent - www.applause.org.uk
3rd Rolvenden Village Hall, Kent - www.applause.org.uk
6th Nazareth Community Centre, nr Caerphilly www.nightout.org.uk
7th Llandinam Village Hall, Powys - www.nightout.org.uk
8th Trafalgar School, Downton - www.poundarts.org.uk/touring
9th Collingbourne Kingston Village Hall, Wilts- www.poundarts.org.uk/touring
10th Winfrith Village Hall, Dorset - artsreach.co.uk
11th The Exchange, Sturminster Newton - artsreach.co.uk
16th Stamford Arts Centre - www.stamfordartscentre.com
17th Terry O'Toole Theatre, Lincolnshire - www.terryotooletheatre.org.uk
18th Cornerstone, Didcot - www.cornerstone-arts.org/8.id
19th - 20th Theatre Royal, Margate - www.theatreroyalmargate.com
24th Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury - www.rosestheatre.org
26th - 28th Burnley Youth Theatre - www.burnleyyouththeatre.com
31st Kings Lynn Arts Centre, Norfolk - www.kingslynnarts.co.uk
1st - Farnham Maltings - www.farnhammaltings.com
11th - 14th Lighthouse, Poole www.lighthousepoole.co.uk FINISHED

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