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‘The Secret Garden’ Review: Despite a Few Misses, This Adaptation Hits Home

★★★ | If my memory serves me right, I was somewhere in the early years of middle-school when I first read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This was also the first time I had encountered the much used English literary trope of the abandoned, orphan child who comes of age all by themselves in a sprawling physical space, flooded with grief and death. But Burnett’s novel, set in the foggy Yorkshire moors, was far from being a drab read. It had a luxuriant richness to its prose that was further exacerbated by the comfort found in following the adventures of Mary Lennox—who, like me, was told from an early age that she was not like other children. 

Cast of The Secret Garden at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner.

Growing up, I found a perplexing queer comfort in the words of Burnett’s text. There was a deep solitude in knowing that even in the darkest of times there was solace to be found—if one only searched hard enough. Walking into the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of this children’s classic, I kept wondering to myself about the many possibilities of adaptation that a novel like The Secret Garden afforded to any creator. I was even more curious to see the limits to which the creators of this production were willing to push the original text, in order to make it resonant and relevant to modern sensibilities.

In the hands of writer Holly Robinson and director Anna Himali Howard, Burnett’s words come to life in the most extraordinary of ways. In a bid to translate this dense work of prose to the stage, the creators use the device of a Greek chorus to facilitate the movement of the narrative across countries and spaces, affording an uncanny fluidity to the performers and the characters as they end up inhabiting multiple roles on stage. The production begins on a deeply sombre note with the death of the parents of Mary Lennox (Hannah Khalique-Brown) in colonial Calcutta, India. Following which, Mary is unceremoniously shipped off to the Yorkshire moors, to live in the sprawling—albeit crumbling—mansion of her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Patrick Osborne). 

Confronted with the wet coldness of her surroundings, Mary, an already lonely child, is forced to fend for herself and along the way mend her ways. She strikes an unlikely friendship with the maid Martha (Molly Hewitt-Richards) and her brother Dickon (Brydie Service). Together, the trio soon set out on the mission of locating and bringing back to life the secret garden of Misselthwaite Manor, which the Lord has left locked up following the death of his wife and Mary’s Aunt. In her journey of bringing the garden back to life, Mary also stumbles upon the other big secret the Manor hides—the secret of her cousin Colin (Theo Angel), a disabled young boy who has never known love in his life. 

Theo Angel (Colin) and Brydie Service (Dickon) in The Secret Garden. Photo by Alex Brenner.

In Robinson and Howard’s vision, Burnett’s text becomes a moving meditation on the regenerative potential and healing qualities of nature. Through their framing of Colin’s character, and his strained and painful relationship with his father, the creators put forward the strongest message of their play—that disability needs to be embraced and no child needs to be ‘fixed’ for their differences. By virtue of their unique selfhood, all children are enough and hence deserving of all the love that there is to offer. 

Hannah Khalique-Brown is absolutely remarkable in her performance as the young Mary Lennox. In a script that offers her ample opportunities to ground her performance in external physicalities, Brown chooses to base her interpretation of the character on a fine line that toes the boundary between physical theatrics and the communication of an internal psychospace. Her carefully calibrated performance joins the club of a plethora of performances by actors who have brought to life the palpable pain and crumbling loneliness of orphans from the Victorian age, who were forced to grow up in the most desolate of physical spaces surrounded by grief, loss and diseases. 

Collaborating with scholar Dr. Priyanka Basu for this play, the creators also bring to the fore the colonial history at the heart of this story that has long been ignored. In the second act of the play, I was pleasantly surprised to find references to the Swadeshi movement in India. The production had also taken enough care to make Mary’s younger aunt, Padma, wear a coarse, white cotton saree—in line with her status as one of the members of the pre-Independent movement. As unexpected as it was, it was delightful to see the play acknowledge Mary’s status as a mixed-race child, not just as a convenient plot line, but as a reality that befell thousands of children who came to be in the aftermath of the colonial rule in India.

Cast of The Secret Garden at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner.

But despite these moments of soaring high, The Secret Garden as a production falls flat in parts. The excessive deployment of the Greek chorus as the binding spine of the play became, after a point, distracting and pointless. For such a device to work, more music and choreographed performances would perhaps be necessary—otherwise, the novelty of this device flattens out over the two-hours-long runtime of the play. As the play hurtles forward to a neat conclusion, the arguments begin to get more vapid, the dialogue delivery more shrieking, the humour complacent, the messaging repetitive and the writing slightly lazy. 

If there is anything I hate about watching a production (and that too one whose story is close to my heart) it is being told what to think. I deeply dislike being talked down to by a piece of text—written, visual or performed. And while thinking might be the primary objective of any form of intellectual pursuit, I would rather be taught how to think along, than be told exactly what to think. With The Secret Garden, by the end of the play, I had an increasingly gnawing sensation that any scepticism that I might have about the magical potential of gardening would be heavily frowned upon by the creators of the production. 

But, as I stepped out into the now darkness-enveloped foliage of Regents Park, I saw around me a bunch of young toddlers and early teenagers who were delightfully engrossed in their discussions of the play. Seeing them exchange quick notes on the friendly squirrel, the wise raven and the quick robin made me realise that perhaps this is a text—and by consequence a play—that needs to be viewed with an untainted lens of innocence. Perhaps it is the loss of that very innocence in our collective lives that Robinson and Howard are alerting us towards. If that were to stand true, then the cast and crew have come together and put on a delightfully good show.


The Secret Garden runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until July 20th. Click here for more information and tickets.


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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