The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – review:

“An entertaining and thought-provoking piece for all ages and generations”

A new version by Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Review by: Michael Scott-Harding
afridiziak ratings
Published: Thursday 27 June 2024, 2:30pm

The Secret Garden at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Credit Alex Brenner.
The Secret Garden at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Credit Alex Brenner.

This piece is based on the 1911 book, written by English author Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Adapted by Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard, it ties together many tales, ranging from British-colonised India through to Yorkshire; pointing out the cultural and social differences between those coming from different backgrounds, while reminding us of the elements that bind all humanity together (e.g. nature, hope, friendship, love).

Director Anna Himali Howard has brought together a highly talented and imaginative creative team; one that utilises puppetry, music, singing, music, subtle lighting effects alongside a novel and interesting approach to movement, props and ‘business management’.

The physical work is seamless – the simple-yet-effective movement often resembling the ebb-and-flow of a flock of starlings, or a school of fish; there is little excess movement, yet everything seems to fall into its rightful place.

Similarly, the dialogue is delivered with a good ear for rhythm, tone and cadence; the entire cast often acting as a ‘Greek chorus’. Whether engaging through character, or taking narrative duties in counterpoint, relay or synchronous harmony, each cast-member delivers their lines with weight, accuracy, humour and clarity. It seems unfair to pick out anyone from the cast; however, I particularly enjoyed the character-arc of Hannah Khalique-Brown (Mary Lennox), and the comic timing of Richard Clews (Ben Weatherstaff’) and Molly-Hewitt-Richards (Martha).

The set is presented simply; a retractable ‘wall’ covers the length of the stage. Inlaid into its many recesses are several working lights in the shape of candles. In the middle of the wall is a large double-door; either side of which are two smaller doors.

Other movable props include various portable doorways, office and bedroom furniture, and gardening paraphernalia. These were all moved around the stage seamlessly by various members of the cast, who also rendered simple – yet effective – puppet representations of several ‘friendly’ animals.

Oftentimes, this open-air venue can prove somewhat problematic – even in summer. On this occasion, the weather, natural world and the thematic concepts of the hosted play’s source material seemed to coalesce into a magical, synchronous harmony; with robins, pigeons and various other curious bird-life making themselves heard throughout the sun-kissed performance.

It’s ironic that – in a play presented in an open-air theatre, and based on a book which extols the virtues of ecological sustainability and good horticultural practice – the plants on display were represented by (what looked like) plastic streamer-like contraptions. Presumably, the set designers decided that using this device was easier to manage and less damaging to the natural world than the use of real plants.

Regardless, the props proved to be stimulating and evocative.

Burnett’s book has a lot to say about race, class, hierarchical wealth and asserted/ reinforced societal positions. It also uses the metaphor of soil/ earth as being ‘our’ common denominator – the agent from which we all gain sustenance, and the place where we shall all return (metaphorically or otherwise).

This play alludes to all of this in a simple and effective way, without being too pious or obvious; making it an entertaining and thought-provoking piece for all ages and generations.

A strong, collaborative effort and a lot of fun.

Need to know: The Secret Garden runs until 20 July 2024 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre