Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story The Secret Garden isn’t your usual festive fare but The Stables, which only hosts theatre once a year, likes to come up with something special for its Christmas show.
While nearby venues have celebrities and glitzy pantos the Wavenden-based venue likes to appeal to a more refined audience. In recent years it has welcomed productions that feature some of literature’s great works including A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island, Heidi, Pinocchio and The Snow Queen.
Children are captivated by these shows. The sets are often rudimentary, the costumes unrefined, but what they share is the ability to take audiences on a magical journey with the help of a lot of imagination and a rock solid story.
This year Proteus, a Hampshire-based theatre company, has brought its national tour of The Secret Garden for a month-long stay at a venue more used to holding music gigs.
There’s nothing remotely Christmassy about the story except in its overwhelming optimism and hope. Director Mary Swan has done a tremendous job in coming up with an adaptation which produces a fast-paced story that comes in at about 90 minutes - just right for the attention spans of little family members.
A sour-faced and emotionally scarred 10-year-old, Mary Lennox, arrives at a grand Yorkshire country residence, the home of her uncle, after cholera claims the lives of both parents in India.
Her taciturn uncle, Archibald Craven, is also nursing his own wounds after losing his wife in childbirth a decade earlier. His son, Colin, has been hidden out of sight and convinced he is sickly because he is a constant reminder to his father at what he’s lost.
Mary struggles to fit in until she discovers a secret garden in the grounds - a walled garden first created by Craven’s wife and now locked away following her death.
The key characters slowly begin to bloom as the garden and the residents of Misselthwaite Hall are affected by the restorative powers of nature.
Children will adore the play’s puppet figures. There’s a friendly robin, a wily old fox called Captain and a brolly good couple of crows who make a flap throughout.
The versatile cast swoop in behind the figures, play musical instruments and some inter-change characters.
An appropriately named Ashley Christmas makes a comforting nanny/housekeeper figure as Martha to a quite petulant Mary (Louisa Quinn convincing as a child) while Paul Huntley-Thomas gives compelling performances as gardener Ben and head of the household Mr Craven.
The set lets the production down with not a flower in sight and a lot of space-age silvery fabric. At the end of the show the audience can join the cast on stage to find their own way into The Secret Garden.