This picture-book musical follows a young orphan girl who casts off her mourning clothes and warms the hearts of those around her. It is a tale of growth and renewal after the long winter of grief, and set to some achingly beautiful songs, inspired by English folk music. The beautiful writing is matched by the strength of vocal performance across the large cast, although quite often the show loses itself in its nostalgic mysticism.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel The Secret Garden was adapted into this musical by Americans Lucy Simon (music) and Marsha Norman (book and lyrics), which premièred on Broadway in 1991. Though based on a children’s novel, this is far from kids’ entertainment – the troubling issues surrounding life, death, and the children left behind are tackled head-on, and the storytelling is complex. We drift between reality and memory just as our heroine Mary Lennox wanders between the roses and the lilies in that English country garden. In this musical which is nostalgic for a forgotten time in which people were nostalgic for forgotten times of their own, action and tension is scarce. However, if you can deal with that deficiency, it is more than made up for by strong choral singing and some truly moving solo performances.
The centrepiece of the production was the young Ana Martin as Mary Lennox. She captured her character’s ‘sour’ impudence in a sophisticated way – she drew immense humour without ever playing for laughs, remarkable in an actress of her age. Alexander Evans as her uncle Archibald Craven gave a gutsy and emotive operatic tenor, fearsome in his bellowing and scintillating in his soft, tearful falsetto. Injecting the show with some much-needed energy was Jordan Lee Davis as Dickon, a spritely Yorkshire likely-lad who teaches Mary the joys of nature. He infused his bright and poppy tunes with a magical power of creation which lit up the stage.
The set left more than a little to be desired – a rustic and rural musical about life-affirming growth and changing seasons is the wrong place for garish plastic passion-flowers and astro-turf. I appreciate the King’s Head is not the place for elaborate sets, but in this case suggestion would have been preferable over cheap imitation. Nevertheless, his is not the first excellent musical theatre piece I’ve seen at the King’s Head, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.