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Review: The Secret Garden, Cirencester’s Barn Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:32 21 March 2018 | UPDATED: 10:32 21 March 2018

Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven)

Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven)

Archant

Cirencester’s new Barn Theatre is up and running with its first production: a musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book, The Secret Garden. Katie Jarvis is utterly captivated...

So you remember, don’t you, when you were 11 and you didn’t just read books. You became them… You were Tom Sawyer, kissing Becky when she promised to love you forever. You were Elnora Comstock, flying after moths in the Limberlost. You were hungry Sara Crewe, returning to a cold, empty attic wondrously filled with mysterious gifts and feasts.

And then (after all these years), you - when you thought those captivating times were long past – suddenly catch up with them again.

And this time, you’re in a strange mansion, where the long corridors lead to an old, dying parkland; where huge rooms are lit by flickering fires; where strange bursts of crying are nervously shushed into thin air. A mansion full of ghosts – not ectoplasmic ghosts so much as the spirits of those passed, whom the present won’t let go.

Oh, my gosh. The Secret Garden. At the Barn Theatre – Cirencester’s new theatre. Such a wonder. And I didn’t expect it to be; I so didn’t expect it to be.

Not a wonder in the same way as that reading experience; I don’t think you can be captivated by actors on a stage in the same way that you can sink into the pages of a book, lost in the corner of an empty room. But equally captivated in a different way.

And that’s what this production understands.

Because it does captivate. It draws you in with emotion-seizing music – folk songs; exotic Indian chanted charms; rock, ballads, and sheer joyous exuberance in chordal swirl. It features a girl – lost and cross – whose parents have died in India; who’s transported to a huge empty house, where the servants speak in a Yorkshire accent she barely understands; where an uncle, distant and grief-stricken, drifts through rooms like the dead wife he yearns for; where Dickon charms birds and flowers; and a strange lost boy cries out in the night.

Where an abandoned garden longs to be brought back to life.

Daniella Piper (Mary Lennox) and Celeste De Veazey (Colin Craven)Daniella Piper (Mary Lennox) and Celeste De Veazey (Colin Craven)

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So let’s have a little look behind the scenes. How does this production produce such delights? Not so much by magic – truth be told – as sheer talent and hard work. The cast that recreates The Secret Garden follows a developing trend: actors who sing, dance and play instruments. And, in this case, who are adept puppeteers, too. (For back-stories are cleverly told through the medium of puppets. In some productions, this would be a fancy (but distracting) technique; here, it works to perfection.)

And then there’s the theatre itself: a 200-seater, state-of-the-art space (thanks to £4.5 million of investment led by Cirencester residents Ian and Chrissie Carling. Blimey!), that must be faintly surprised to find itself in the heart of a small-ish Cotswold market town.

That’s on paper. In terms of experience, you can see where the money has gone. Its seats are comfy; they’re placed so that, even if Brian Blessed were to sit in front of you, you could still see (Brian being a definite possibility; on press night, the impressive invitees I spot range from Lady B to Daisy Cooper (AKA Kerry of This Country); from Pam Ayres and Dudley Russell to Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen (Laurence being busy working overseas). And then there are the effects: the beautiful back projections; the stunning lighting; the sound (though this, perhaps, needs a bit of a tweak; the shrillness improved as the production progressed).

And there’s director Dominic Shaw, who has updated this 1991 production for a 2018 audience, with a cast who work The Secret Garden into a far more intimate setting than the Broadway original. “What if Dickon had a folk band and that band wrote the score?” was the idea Dominic has played with so brilliantly.

“Nobody will ever have seen a Secret Garden quite like this,” the Barn’s artistic director, Iwan Lewis, told me, when I interviewed him a few weeks ago.

I wasn’t sure, from that, what I would make of it.

How wrong I was to doubt.

Steffan Rizzi (Ensemble) with Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven), in background Jamie Ross (Ensemble)Steffan Rizzi (Ensemble) with Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven), in background Jamie Ross (Ensemble)

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So back to the production.

What can I say... I defy anyone, of almost any age, not to enjoy this.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, right from the haunting moment Jaimie Pruden as Lily Craven begins with a melody that bridges cultures and years. It seems almost wrong to single members out – Daniella Piper as the confused, angry and salvational Mary; David Haydn as her uncle and Minal Patel as his doctor brother, whose duet is one of the voice-melding highlights; Alex James Ellison as the joyful Dickon; Celeste De Veazey, who skilfully juggles puppet and body as the petulant Colin; Jenny O’Leary as Martha, the servant, whose humour provides many of the laugh-out-loud moments.

Have I missed anyone? Only by accident. Because it’s all the elements together – musical ensemble included - that make a perfect whole.

To me, the beauty of the production was never more apparent than during the interval, when cast members sat on stage – as if friends at a uni party – and sang. For the sheer utter pleasure of singing.

David Haydn (Archibald Craven) with Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven)David Haydn (Archibald Craven) with Jaimie Pruden (Lily Craven)

The Secret Garden, a musical, directed by Dominic Shaw, at The Barn Theatre, Beeches Road, Cirencester GL7 1BN, March 16-April 15, tickets £14-28; barntheatre.org.uk; 01285 648255

Click here to book tickets.

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