Sometimes I think I'm a little too hard on musicals. Despite my best intentions, I get exhausted out by the melodrama and the fresh-faced stage school grads who tend to populate them. It's not that I don't like musicals, but, to be frank, the passion of die-hard musical fans is confusing and unnerving. But then sometimes I'm in the mood for an undemanding, good-natured and well-performed show.
Step forward The Secret Garden. An adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Edwardian children's novel about traumatised children healing through gardening, this 1991 musical by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman won a couple of Tony Awards and proceeded to become a staple school production. All of which makes it the perfect showcase for the British Theatre Academy.
Director Rupert Hands has trimmed the show down to a lean 75 minutes, jettisoning a couple of songs and streamlining the story to focus on the more youthful elements. This allows the pupils of the BTA space to showcase what they've learned and get some experience of life on the West End. With no member of the cast older than 23, the younger ones (who look about 6 or 7) are getting a first taste of what it's like to stare out at an audience,, while the older ones are eager for something to put on their CV and maybe to catch the eye of any casting agents in the crowd.
Based on what I saw last night, no-one on stage should have too many worries about their dramatic future. This was a confident, pacy and personable show, brimming with character and clever little touches. Given that this is a showcase for young talent, it features a revolving cast somewhat reminiscent of Matilda. Theoretically, the quality of the show may vary depending on who's in the cast that night, and (being a mite cynical) I suspect they put their most talented members on stage together for press night. After all, why wouldn't you put your best foot forward?
That's the theory I'm going with to explain the fantastic performance of Alana Hinge. Beginning the show bereaved, culture-shocked and spiky, she gradually thaws as she learns kindness, patience and empathy. Hinge manages to both be astonishingly bratty; responding to adults with a mixture of petulance, screaming and occasional stamping, and to the bedbound Colin with a hilarious insouciance about his fears of death. Whether she's climbing atop a desk to hurl invective at a hapless schoolmarm or grumpily stomping on the floor she's consistently the best thing on stage. On top of that, she's possessed of admirable comic timing, drawing such sustained laughter from the audience that she has to pause for us to catch up.
Though Hinge is the best thing here, nobody's slouching. Similarly marvellous are Sam Proctor's wounded and withdrawn Colin, Matthew Nicholas' puckishly energetic Dickon and Samantha Bingley's charming Yorkshire lass. George Mulryan and Stuart Nunn also deserve singling out for a fine, atmospheric ode to the dead Lily.
My only criticisms are reserved for the book. Dialogue is occasionally stilted, even taking into account that these characters are supposed to be stuffy and emotionally uptight Edwardians. Though I haven't read the book since I was a child (and have seen neither hide nor hair of the musical), it feels as if a certain amount of exposition has been crowbarred in to get the length of this production down.
On a similar note, some of the songs drag on a bit. The best: Wick, The House Upon the Hill and Come Spirit, Come Charm are evocative, competently choreographed and nicely performed. Some of the others, particularly the overwrought How Could I Ever Know restate the same point ad nauseum, and come at a point in the show where we're hungry for the climax rather than more sadsack soul-searching. Seriously, if you're looking for something to jettison in The Secret Garden, start here.
But these are wrinkles in what proved to be a hugely enjoyable night. I left with a smile on my face, cheeriness in my soul and a thoroughly warmed heart. The Secret Garden is a joy for children and adults alike, bristling with talent (Alana Hinge could be a megastar in the making) and a cast eager to prove that they've got what it takes. They have.
The Secret Garden (Spring Version) is at the Ambassadors Theatre until August 23rd. Tickets here.