At the end of the holidays, ask your children what they enjoyed doing most during the long, hot summer. I’d bet a bunch of white roses that their fondest memories are being outside somewhere, surrounded by nature: in the park, in a wood or just in the back garden. It’s the timeless appeal of gardens, and their ability to heal and bring joy, that’s central to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, showing at York Theatre Royal this summer.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll know that it’s not all peonies and petunias. Mary Lennox – an entitled and not altogether pleasant little girl – lives a privileged life in India until she loses her parents. We’re then transported with her to the bleak Yorkshire moors and Misslethwaite Manor, the home of her mysterious uncle, where all is not as it seems. It’s a house without hope or happiness and one that’s full of secrets. And there’s nothing that perks up a child more than the prospect of discovering a secret or two. Martha the maid – a wonderful character who brings much-needed warmth and wit to the cold house – lets on that there’s a secret garden somewhere on the estate and Mary makes it her mission to find it. Aided by her new friend, Dickon, and a cast of captivating puppet creatures, she eventually finds the garden and brings the family and the house bursting back into life like a flowerbed in springtime.
There’s a lot to love about this show: the casting is perfect (we’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite character, but the Martha and Mary double act light up the stage), the musical score is fantastic and the set is stunning. There are dark moments – slaps, screams, earthquakes and a dose of Victorian medicine mean it could be too much for very young children – but they’re tempered by witty one-liners and an overriding sense that everything’s going to be okay.
The show ends in a burst of colour, with a fantastic Bollywood-inspired number that had us dancing out into the night. I asked our 8-year-old how many stars he would give it out of five. ‘Well, I can’t see why I wouldn’t give it five’. I think we’ve just created another summer memory that he’ll cherish well into the winter months.
The Secret Garden runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 25th August. Visit the York Theatre Royal website for more details and to book