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The Secret Garden (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett in a new version by Holly Robinson & Anna Himali Howard, who also directs

Open Air Theatre, Regents Park

 Star rating: 4

 This creative, 2024 take on a 1911 novel is a show laden with thoughtful charm.

The novel starts with Mary, lonely and awkward, arriving from India to the guardianship of a reclusive uncle who has a grand pile in the north of England. Robinson and Howard begin with Mary’s life in colonialist India where her English father and Indian mother neglect her shamefully so she’s always cross and demanding. It’s a neat way of working in an overt anti-colonialism message. It also allows for a lot of glorious diverse casting because cousins Mary (Hannah Khalique-Brown) and Colin (Theo Angel) are necessarily mixed race because their mothers were Indian sisters.

A cast of twelve acts as a narrating chorus, giving us punchy story telling and negating the need for a lot of exposition. That works very well. So does Leslie Travers’s set which is all sepia and doors. And the titular garden, when we get to it after the interval is a triumph. It comprises four raised beds on wheels from which gradually emerge, pulled out progressively by the cast, coloured streamers and shapes. By the end it’s a riot of colour and a powerful symbol of love and healing.

Khalique-Brown is outstanding as Mary. For a long time she’s angry, rude and bossy with a lot of foot stamping in her “up tight” navy collared dress (costumes by Khadija Raza – lovely). Then she gradually softens as she learns to empathise and smile and appears in a gentle rose pink dress and looser hair.  Molly Hewitt-Richard is strong as the down to earth Yorkshire servant who eventually becomes Mary’s friend, once they work through the “caste” barriers. The two actors really home in on the contrasts. They even look dramatically different. When Martha gives Mary a skipping rope and then demonstrates how to use it, Hewitt-Richard got a cheerful, admiring round of applause on press night.

The rest of the cast, mostly multi-roleing in and out of the chorus are richly supportive not least via the simple but convincing puppetry (consultant Laura Cubitt). Amanda Hardingue, for example, as Mrs Medlock the housekeeper, creates a wonderful squawking crow from the black shawl she otherwise wears across her shoulders. Sharan Phull’s darting robin is a delight too – she flits lightly across the stage and twitches the avian palm of her hand, with red patch.

In this version The Secret Garden becomes a multi-generational story about three sisters, two brothers and therapeutic power of nature when people are damaged by grief, neglect or illness. And we never forget the Indian links. It’s in the music by Ford Collier and Kate Griffin and there’s some vernacular language, Dr Priyanka Basu has done a good job as consultant historian and translator.

It is pleasing, moreover, to see several actors with disabilities in the cast. For example, Angel, who is a wheelchair user, is great as petulant, cross, bedridden Colin, initially certain that he’s dying. And I was delighted to see Jack Humphrey excelling as the sad, anxious Archibald Craven. I’ve seen Humphrey, who uses a stick,  in action before and  noticed what a fine actor he is. He was in National Youth Theatre’s brilliant production of Animal Farm, in 2021 and has done other work since.  Good to see him now in a completely different role.

This is a show with a great deal going for it. Happily recommended.





Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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