A FLASH, a bang, a thunder of war, like an echo of the conflict currently blazing in northern Syria, and it’s clear in the first seconds of the show that in this new 60-minute version by Rosalind Sydney, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved 1911 children’s story has been updated with a vengeance. Her heroine, Mary, is not an upper-class English girl orphaned by cholera in India, but a refugee orphaned by war, who arrives at her uncle’s big house in Scotland after an all-too-familiar 21st century journey through forests full of soldiers and across treacherous seas.
The Secret Garden, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****
The outline of the story remains the same, though, as Mary tentatively explores the big house, and discovers the key to a hidden garden in the grounds, once lovingly tended by her long-dead aunt; and together with her apparently wheelchair-bound cousin Colin, and her new friend Dickon – who understands everything about the plants and animals around the garden and moors – she gradually begins a process of healing as desperately needed now as it was a century ago.
It’s possibly to raise the odd question about Sydney’s version, which she also directs, with the help of movement by Robbie Synge and sound by Danny Krass; there’s perhaps slightly too much physical theatre involving Mary’s journey to the UK and her exploration of the house, not enough that expresses the central narrative of her relationship with the garden, and how it transforms her.
Yet the show is so full of rich invention and feeling that it overrides the odd structural problem. Itxaso Moreno’s brusquely androgynous central performance is full of poignancy and power, and there’s real pathos too in the gentle guiding presence of Mary’s lost parents, tenderly played by Gavin Jon Wright and Sarah Miele, when they are not conjuring up half a dozen other characters. There’s real 21st century comedy, too, in Mary’s encounter with her geeky cousin Colin, and his keyboard-bound indoor lifestyle. And when the garden finally opens out in front of us – in Karen Tennant’s beautiful and ingenious design – there is a moment of real wonder for the whole audience; as like Mary, we begin to take deeper breaths, to smell the honeysuckle, and to feel how our own lives are so profoundly bound to the natural world around us, that in the end nothing else can heal us, as we heal it, in our turn.
On tour across Scotland until 8 March. For full details see https://redbridgearts.co.uk/2019/10/23/world-premiere-of-the-secret-garden-blossoming-into-spring-2020/