The Secret Garden, presented by YABC and Stage School Australia, is an enchanting show presented by young performers who have talent and guts by the bucketful, and still a lot to learn.
From the very end first glimpse of the space, the setting is impressive. The design, complete with framed “portraits” hanging above the vine-ridden garden walls, strikes a balance between gothic depravity and looming extravagance, without overshadowing the performers below. Upon the “portraits”, images are projected to signify a change of location – the period-style photographs of departed characters are particularly mood-creating and visually captivating. However, one seldom finds the chance to look up from the performers on stage to truly appreciate the artistry of this element of design in every scene. The costumes were absolutely faultless – it was even almost unnoticeable that some little girls in the chorus were disguised as little boys. The visuals are a triumph.
The stagecraft is all exceptionally tight, never allowing the piece to feel stale or a second too long. This is partly due to the nature of the abridged “Spring Version” – everything is cut down to cater for a younger audience – and partly thanks to the blocking and movement. Robert Coates, the director, and Jacqui Green, the choreographer, have utilised their space and cast, keeping the movement flowing throughout the concise 70 minutes, and creating a sense of place, story, and character every step of the way. Attention to detail is obvious, and the team’s work ethic has clearly rubbed off on the entire cast. No individual’s movement was uncertain, and every moment was thought through.
The Secret Garden would seem quite a musically ambitious show for a predominantly youth production, but the “Spring Version” is modified to cater to younger voices. The musical arrangement underneath the sea of voices is also modified for a solo piano, performed with great musicality by musical director Lucy O’Brien. The ensemble harmonies sounded wonderful, with a pleasing balance between the younger and more mature voices. Some stronger voices shined through, rounding out the harmonies beautifully. The ensemble and O’Brien should be commended for their efforts in the stunning chorus moments, proving to be some of the highlights of the whole production.
The production shows off some very strong supporting performances, truly elevating the entire piece. Emily Hansford, as inherently lovable Martha, draws the eye whenever she is on stage with her sharp characterisations and natural stage presence. Her song, Hold On, was a highlight of the piece, as it should be; her strong voice, comedic flair, and her believable warmth of affection towards the children really made the character her own. It should be no surprise to regular amateur theatre audiences that she is a treat to watch. Adrian Agisilaou as groundskeeper Ben was another strong performer with a booming, expressive voice, impressing the audience many times with his keen comedic timing throughout the piece. David Duketis as Dickon was also a pleasure to watch. A charismatic performer, he was perfect for the role, radiating energy and purpose with every movement and every line. Also notable, Jessica Koncic commanded the stage with confidence and poise in her role as the severe Mrs Medlock, never slipping her stern, scary character.
The child stars should be commended for their spunk. Alexandra Denovan as Mary Lennox displayed a strong, bold voice, and her acting skills were evident in her bratty display early on, and remains self-assured throughout all the various stages and challenges her little character goes through. The chemistry between Denovan and Alec Golinger as Colin is touching. Colin’s plight genuinely brings a tear to the eye, especially as we see him blossom and bloom as the garden does. The boy’s father and captor, Archibald Craven, played by Declan Kelly, is somewhat of a caricature of a damaged man, complete with hunched back and cane. The character’s biggest solo songs, some of the musical’s greatest, are removed from this version. This is such a shame, as it limits the emotional development of the character. He doesn’t have as much to work with without Race You to the Top of the Morning or Where in the World, and we don’t fully grasp his truth. Harrison Lane was a slimy Dr Neville, acting well with Kelly during their often heart-wrenching moments. Vocally, they have some ways to go, as is to be expected from a youth production.
The role of Lily is an unusual one. She is a spirit guide to the live characters in the show, wandering through their deepest locked-away chambers, gradually opening them up to reveal a lush and vibrant future. She haunts the gothic mansion, yet shines a warm light onto those whom she loved, and continues to love. Jaimee Bennetts carries herself with the ethereal air of a ghost, with a piercing, somewhat chilling and absent, yet undeniably loving gaze pervading the spectral atmosphere that surrounds her. She has a pleasing contemporary sound to her lower notes, but overall her singing was unsteady. That said, her shaky vocals did highlight the haunting elements of her character, but a more classical sounding vocal may have been more appropriate, as is the usual choice for the role. Emma Colley as similarly departed Rose was intense and emotive, displaying how the smallest role can still make an impression.
The Secret Garden – Spring Version truly is quality entertainment for young people; it is intelligent, emotionally deep, and entertaining, truly a treat for all ages. Youth theatre is so very valuable for these young performers, and for audiences – to witness a critical moment in their development and to foresee their future as fully-fledged artists in the glint of their eyes is a real treat. Above all that, though, this is a truly beautiful show that incites emotion within.