At first thought, staging a children’s classic as an adult piece – complete with orchestra and some very operatic nuances – could seem a touch daft.
But The Secret Garden, in concert, at the King’s Head makes perfect sense as an evening that dips into the dark territories that might have passed you by on reading the book aged ten, while lifting you with the soaring music and redemptive story line. It has, along with a lot of those marvellous story books from the 20th century, many macabre moments. Put black and white, these are as weighty as: adult mourning, the sudden death of parents, terminal illness and, what is perhaps more disturbing, the unsettled spirits of ghosts not laid to rest.
For Archibald Craven (Alexander Evans), whose orphan niece Mary (Ana Martin) comes to stay in his tumble-down mansion on the hill, his ghost is his dead wife but also his refusal to let go of the past. Determined on a life of misery he locks his secret garden, hardens his heart to his ill son Colin (Zac Donovan) and haunts the stage like a phantom of the opera with a hunchback instead of mask. The repercussions of his bitterness and anguish provide the gravitas, the children’s discovery of the garden, the light contrast. Even roses can grow in the bleakest of conditions.
All this played out to a live orchestra, playing brightly and vibrantly as befits a play where flowers are a theme. The singing is superb, with Martin and Donovan’s voices (aged 12 and 13) not a jot less sophisticated than their adult co-stars. Martin is also excellent as the pouting, petulant young madam, believably just returned from India with servants at her command. At times we think we are in a La Traviata opera, with Archibald’s grief stricken postures and clinches with his dead wife as dramatic and doom laden as any grand finale at the Royal Opera House.
So, The Secret Garden is an interesting mix. But if a fan of children’s stories of old you won’t be the least surprised. These were the times when the depths of troubled imaginations, fears and hopes were keyed into by authors of the day. Pity the Harry Potter generation now and find a bit of springtime early at the King’s Head.
The Secret Garden in concert is on until 17 March at The King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington. Tickets: £18 (£16 conc).