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Secret Garden
Published on Thursday, 12 August 2010

4.5 stars

Augustine's (venue website)
9 - 15 Aug, 4:45pm (5:45pm)
Reviewed by Lee Zhuo Zhao

The Secret Garden, a popular children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, was first published in 1911 – and is firmly steeped in the innocence of England before the First World War.  And when a company like the Norfolk Youth Music Theatre, consisting of actors and actresses all under the age of 18, stage a musical production of such a classic story, it would be easy to assume it’s just a dressed-up school play.  But, oh, how wrong that would be!

Indeed, you should never underestimate the maturity teenagers can bring to a stage.  The quality of acting and singing on display here is outstanding, far beyond the expectations set by the cast’s years, and puts many student and adult productions here on the Fringe to shame.  If they had decided – to quote Educating Rita – to "do it on the radio", I swear I would have thought everyone involved (with the obvious exception of the boy treble) were in their twenties.

The plot concerns a girl, Mary Lennox, forced by her mother’s death to relocate from colonial India to her uncle's country house in Yorkshire.  And in my opinion, the undisputed star is thirteen-year-old Ellie Hitchcock-Wyatt, who plays Mary. She is a revelation: composed and mature throughout, she brings across every little subtlety of her character with some excellent delivery. And the added bonus, she's got a decent singing voice!

Vocally though, the stars were Callum Bicknell and Emily Stanghan, playing Mary's uncle and his wife respectively.  They are in their own show Poperatically Speaking – also on the Fringe – and it’s clear why they were entrusted with the big songs in this musical. Although Emily was not given a lot to do acting-wise (her character is just an idealised vision throughout) this suited her beautifully lyrical voice perfectly.  When she sings her solo in the spotlight, it's as close to angelic as you might ever get.

With a host of strong supporting performances and not one weak link in the acting or singing – wayward Yorkshire accents aside – it was really disappointing that these talented teenagers were let down by what should be the basics.  The orchestra was rough around the edges, especially in terms of intonation.  There were some clumsy scene changes too, leaving stage hands moving the set in full light whilst a scene was still happening in the foreground, and the chorus scenes were overly busy thanks to the sheer number of people the directors had worked in.

But these things cannot take too much away from what’s a real hidden gem on the Fringe. You’re going to have to hurry, though: they're only doing a week of shows.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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