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The Secret Garden
Published on Tuesday, 11 May 2010

I’m a huge fan of site-specific theatre – that rather pretentious umbrella term for anything which takes place away from a conventional stage.  So I was excited at the thought of this trip to Misselthwaite Manor, evoked for the Fringe with elegant simplicity in the basement of a townhouse in Brunswick.  And thanks to a strong cast, including two first-class child actors, my tour through the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel was a memorable one.

First impressions are, to put it bluntly, a let-down.  Covered in scaffolding and riddled with woodworm, the house is in a terrible state.  But once things get going, the plot validates the dilapidation of this long-neglected space – and the dark and decaying halls we wander through are a fine metaphor for the bereaved Lord Craven’s life.

Perhaps my eyes were just adjusting to the dark, but as the youthful new arrival Mary brought newfound hope to the house, the physical gloom around me seemed to lift as well.  The eponymous garden, revealed only towards the end of the play, is a spotlit oasis in the midst of the miasma; and my heart truly skipped when the shutters were thrown open, revealing a magical vista I’d previously only glimpsed by jostling around a tiny window.

A lot of good work’s gone into the soundscape as well, with an oppressively ticking clock or an ominously crackling fire communicating as much as any words.  And cleverly, it’s often sound that summons us from scene to scene, injecting a new burst of excitement as we hunt out that rattling tea-trolley and the next nugget of dialogue from the maid.

But despite all that sensory fulfilment, I’m afraid I’d hoped for a tiny bit more.  We were reassured on entry that we could wander the house at will – and to the evident delight of many around me, if you had the courage to split off from the group there were a few secret scenes to be found.  Yet the environment wasn’t as richly immersive as it first seemed; there was enough intriguing detail to encourage you to explore, but opening a cupboard was as likely to reveal the sound system as it was to unlock a secret.  A free-range audience is a concept whose time has come – and this piece, though well-executed, wasn’t quite the state of the art.

It would be wrong to sign off without a word for the two child actors; they change from day to day, but on my visit were Amy Arnell and Declan Mason.  Both showed a poise and expressiveness which would rival many adult peers, and both did a fine job of exploring the tragedy in their characters’ respective lives.  All in all then, it’s easy to recommend The Secret Garden; for the acting, for the atmosphere, but most of all for its use of an almost-forgotten space – an inspired evocation of a world that’s now long gone.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.