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Review: The Secret Garden - Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (19th Aug 2022)

Wow! From top to bottom and everything in between, this is a magnificent production.

I’m not going to waste precious words giving you a synopsis, as it’s based on a very famous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but if necessary, you can educate yourself with a quick Google search. However, there is a little bit of context required ahead of my review. Firstly, this production was specifically adapted for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds by Nicola Werenowska, and what a fantastic adaptation it is too. Secondly, I featured professional actress, Olivia Carruthers (Mrs Medlock) alongside the co-Director, David Whitney, on the podcast last week, and they explained that the youth element of the production was effectively divided into two teams, known as the Robins and the Roses. Such was their strength in numbers, they have two entirely different young casts, so which of these you see is entirely down to which of the performances you come along to.

For my part, I had the pleasure of seeing the Robins in action. This performance was led by Jasmine Briggs in the role of Mary Lennox, and when I say led, I really do mean it, as she assuredly kept the story moving as the main protagonist. Throughout, Jasmine made me entirely forget that I was watching a largely community production, such was her confidence and poise on stage. She was more than able to hold her own alongside the professionals sharing the stage with her. Jasmine showed not even the faintest hint of opening night nerves, was absolutely word-perfect, her projection was superb, and just generally gave an all-round impressive performance.

The two other lead youths in this performance were Dillon Bhavsar and Oscar Gleeson, who played Dickon and Colin respectively. Dillon played the kind-hearted, working-class Dickon superbly as a kind of gentle foil to Mary and Colin’s more straight-laced sensibilities. He had a little less to work with in terms of a character arc, but he looked completely at home on the stage, and gave a great account of himself with a very sensitive, mature execution of the role. Although only appearing in the second half, Oscar had plenty of time to impress, as Colin graduated from entitled and brattish infant to a more optimistic and pleasant child. Oscar well and truly seized on the opportunity, giving us a wide range of emotions but without ever resorting to over-acting in a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

There were seven other young actors, who played The Guardians of the Secrets, a chorus of onlookers who watch the action of the play from the outside. Their roles were created especially for this production, and they fulfilled their parts admirably. It would be wrong of me to single any one of them out, as they worked so well as a cohesive unit, bringing an element of physical theatre to the way they moved around the auditorium and on-stage, and often speaking as a collective. What was notable though was the focus from each of them; it is not uncommon to see at least one or two slightly bored or unfocused members of a chorus, but these young people remained in character and on-the-ball, and didn’t miss a beat, which contributed to a very slick performance.

With young people very much front and centre in this production, you could almost forget that the adult cast is made up of four professional actors. But professional is the operative word here, and what they produced and helped to bring out in the young cast was exactly that. Olivia Carruthers used her experience and stage-craft to eke out a few laughs from the audience as the put-upon Mrs Medlock, and was a joy to watch whenever she appeared. The excellent Graeme Dalling had the most emotive part as the grief-stricken Mr Craven, which could have led to some scene-stealing moments in lesser actors, but he restrained himself, which in particular allowed Jasmine as Mary to spar with him, rather than finding herself overpowered. Colette McNulty gave us a brilliant performance as the housemaid, Martha – she played the part in a slightly flighty manner, and had an air of youthfulness about her which meant she was entirely believable as a confidante of Mary. And finally, Paul Hamilton gave us some humourous moments as the slightly crotchety, but ultimately kind-hearted gardener, Ben Weatherstaff.

Many things impressed me about the production, but one of my highlights was the musical score, composed by Oliver Vibrans. It was wonderful to hear something created specifically to fit the production, and at every stage of the show, the music helped to perfectly match and even create a specific mood.

Another highlight was the lighting, and normally if I’m mentioning lighting, it’s because I’m a bit thin on the ground for things to praise, but that isn’t the case here. I’m mentioning it because a lot of thought had clearly gone into every element of the production, and the lighting was no exception. There was well-crafted atmospheric lighting throughout, but I particularly enjoyed the flickering footlights creating a warm hearth at the front of the stage, and the silhouettes they projected onto the backdrop.

I’d also never forgive myself if I didn’t remark on the set too. It appeared fairly simple at first, with a large, angled brick wall, covered in ivy which for the most part, sat completely still and untouched. Gradually though, it hinted at the secrets that lay within as it came alive every now and then, until Mary unlocks it and pushes her way through to the other side. It was very, very impressive.

And a special mention to the Theatre itself for the captions on either side of the stage. Though I didn’t need to make use of them due to any disability or preference, I actually found it quite handy when some of the actors’ accents became a bit too thick for this Norfolk lad to understand! But for those that do prefer or need to make use of the caption facilities, they are a real asset, and you can be reassured that they worked brilliantly.

I really could go on and on about what a fantastic production this is, but I’ll give the final bit of praise for the wonderful job that Directors Owen Calvert-Lyons and David Whitney have done in producing this remarkable and stunning piece of theatre, creating an environment where young people can work alongside professionals as equals. I hope this is the first of many plays helped to develop by the Theatre’s Commission Circle, as it really proved itself to be a worthwhile project.


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