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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Secret Garden: A Musical
Aldwych Theatre         Spring 2001

A Tony for the original Broadway production, now taken up by the Royal Shakespeare Company, director Adrian Noble, classy British kid's story originally written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, acclaimed first performances at Stratford-upon-Avon nothing could go wrong. Obviously they've got another Les Miserables on their hands.

Er, not quite. The Secret Garden is a stinker that says as much about the breathtaking ineptitude of the team that created this production as the clueless pair that wrote it.

There are some good points (none redeeming), but I'll save them for last and start with the bad.

This is the story about a little English girl, Mary Lennox, whose family dies in India during a cholera epidemic.

She's transported back to Edwardian Yorkshire, deep in the northern wilds of England, where her uncle Albert's emotional distance conceals his pain over the death of his wife, Mary's aunt, and the mysterious wasting illness of his son Colin.

Mary, with the help of Dicken the gardener and Martha the maid, discovers a neglected secret garden, tends it, and makes Colin well again, thus winning over the crabby uncle.

Well. That's the idea. This is a production distinguished by skewed balances, and the plot is no exception. The garden of the title takes a back seat in this reworking, but is not replaced by any effective dramatic focus.

What was an intimate yet powerful portrait of overcoming class differences and family tragedy is now a damp squib that is more Mary Poppins than Les Mis.

Marsha Norman's lyrics just about manage to match the level of the journeyman-like music by Lucy Simon (sister of uber-songstress Carly), but the worst offender is the choreography.

Really, Gillian Lynne with all her experience (Cats, Phantom) should understand that movement is one of the key elements of almost any musical. Like the songs, the dance numbers consistently appear at the wrong moment, while the spirit of the story is misjudged.

The two Garden Suites in Act I and Act II, for example, are clearly great ensemble pieces that celebrate all that is Yorkshire.

Okay, so we don't need colliery brass bands or clog dancers, but the sight of a ragtag line of gardeners fumbling about like half-arsed yokels with basket-wielding maids to music that's trying to be Appalachian Spring is merely embarrassing. Seven Brides For Seven Sisters this is not and was never intended to be.

On the good side, taken in isolation there are two stand-out performances. Brimming with energy as Mary, the young Natalie Morgan has vocal and acting abilities that belie her years.

As her late mother, Carmen Cusack makes a welcome return to the West End (after Personals), and makes a series of otherwise undistinguished numbers into spine tinglers, albeit briefly.

In the vocal department, the company is, rightly, largely made up of actors who can sing rather than the other way round.

This however sees yet another upset in balance, and Cusack's soaring voice in particular sheds unfair comparison on other singers - not helped by the fact that the usually ebulliant Peter Polycarpou appears lost as Albert's doctor brother.

I realise that one has to be circumspect in assessing any RSC production. After all, they know there is always a ready audience out there who'll waltz out humming all the tunes and recommend it to their friends and there are any number of reputable essayists who'll turn out erudite appreciations in the Sunday papers. I just feel that the blatant waste of our subsidy money on stage here does us all a disservice.

Oh, and the circumstance of Mary and Martha's gratuitous exchange at the beginning of Act I about skin colour is, funnily enough, racist.

Nick Awde

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Review of The Secret Garden - Aldwych Theatre 2001