Secret Garden

Date 3rd June 2015
Society Festival Players
Venue ADC Theatre Cambridge
Type of Production Musical
Director Suzanne Emerson
Musical Director Brian Thomas
Choreographer Not attributed


Author: Julie Petrucci

The Festival Players aren’t afraid of bringing in new shows, or should I say shows that have not been seen around very much, and Secret Garden the Musical is a new one on me so this was the first time I have seen the show.  

The book tells the story of Mary Lennox, a rather spoilt child sent from India to be reunited with her only relation, Archibald Craven, after the death of her parents in a cholera epidemic and is mainly concerned with the relationship between Mary and Colin her young bedridden cousin and, to a much lesser extent, Martha and Dickon.  In this stage version though, Colin’s doctor, who seems to be largely responsible for keeping him bedridden, is Archibald’s younger brother Neville, who stands to inherit the estate if Colin dies. This gives the opportunity for additional scenes to be created between Neville and Archibald and between Neville and Mary.  It also brings out several dead friends and relatives in ghostly fashion (The Dreamers).  

I personally think that the choice to have the ensemble represent the ghosts of dead people from India (where Mary starts out) as distinct from the warm-blooded people of Yorkshire (where Mary moves) pulls the show into morbidity a few too many times and, certainly in the first act, there is not much lightness.  There is not much dialogue either, therefore the show is mostly sung (over 30 songs are listed). 

The range and quality of the voices and acting standards on display were outstanding. In the leading role of Mary Lennox (in the performance I attended), Phoebe Poulter-Kerr-Sinclair was exceptional, with a clear voice both in song and diction. She was completely at ease in the very difficult part.  A fine performance.  In the extremely demanding role of the young Colin, Arun Austin was also first-rate. It is very difficult to bring off tantrums when you are laying in bed but he did so well with a good distinction in character when he walked again.

An excellent angst-ridden performance from Matt Gregory with a great voice as the seemingly aloof uncle who movingly showed his love for his sickly son with Race You to the Top of the Morning. Jonathan Padley was his scheming brother Neville, and their duet Lily’s Eyes’ was one of the highlights of the show.  Lily, or rather her ghost, was played by Philipa Clark, who has a voice like an angel. 

The liveliest roles, all cheerily played, belonged to the servants of the house.  Martha played by Lucy Cheke: this was a lovely confident performance from an actress with a delightful voice used to great effect in If I Had a Fine White Horse and Hold On; Dan Lane in fine voice (particularly as he had a couple of very difficult songs) as Dickon Martha's brother, who knows how to make a garden grow, and Ben the old gardener who knows the garden's history played with great conviction by Len Packman. They could all be depended on to deliver a few warm and lighthearted interludes. Mention too for the fine performance of Mandy Jeffrey as the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Medlock 

The singing was outstanding and MD Brian (Tommy) Thomas is to be congratulated for producing such a wonderful sound.   The music in this show is demanding but beautifully handled by the orchestra which was exceptional, in fact the entire company sustained the harmonies with great effect combined with some genuinely delightful bits of physical theatre, in which the actors played in maze-like corridors or forbidding walls.

Scenery was deceptively basic, but the atmospheric lighting, designed by Eddy Langley and Rob Loxley and Liz Milway’s lovely costumes did much to enhance the show. 

Director Suzanne Emerson once again brought her Midas touch to a Festival Players’ production and, together with Assistant Director Sarah Phelps, provided a show which culminated emotively sending more than one audience member away moist of eye.  

Festival Players achieved an extremely high standard with this very challenging musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnet’s children’s classic . Truly a credit to the society.