REVIEW: The Secret Garden at Theatre by the Lake

A much-needed breath of fresh air, The Secret Garden brings a little bit of magic to Theatre by the Lake writes Sarah Sinclair.

I can remember reading The Secret Garden as a child. I’m told we had a collection of classics at home growing up, however, it is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel which thrives fondly among my childhood memories. Gardens are magical places anyway when you’re young, and often when you’re older too, but I was enthralled and fascinated by the idea of one kept secret.

Theatre by the Lake’s offering, which is showing at the Keswick theatre until 13 January, brought me almost as much joy as those childhood hours spent wandering in my own imaginary garden. But it also gave rise to a great deal more.

The Secret Garden is the Theatre’s first Christmas production under new artistic director Conrad Lynch. And directed by Liz Stevenson, it is a breath of fresh air.

However, while it was the lightheartedness and joy which once had me hooked, the sinister undertones of the story hold my attention now. Adapted for the stage by the award-winning playwright Jessica Swale, the beloved classic has been given a dark makeover.

Set in 1910, Mary Lennox (played beautifully by Natasha Cottriall) lives in India where her parents, we can assume are rather important, if less than desirable in their paternal roles. The archetypal sour-faced, spoilt child, Mary has been raised by “serving staff” who she considers to be beneath her, not “proper people” – for which she has her mother to thank.

From early on, distressing scenes between Mary, her “gin-soaked” mother (Theatre by the Lake stalwart, Frances Marshall) and maid, Ayah in India, make for uncomfortable, yet necessary viewing.

However, life as Mary knows it is about to take dramatic turn. After the sudden death of her parents, she is forced to trade her affluent existence in India for the rural harshness of her Uncle Craven’s residence in the heart of the English countryside.

As we travel with Mary to the Yorkshire moors, we are taken on a journey of grief and loss, mental and physical pain, which will ultimately teach us all about the power of self-belief.

I know, it sounds awfully bleak for a Christmas family production. But I promise, pockets of joy are plentiful throughout, as Mary learns of the healing powers of nature, the wonders of wildlife, and the magic of believing.

While youngsters will lap up the clever use of puppetry – both effective and highly entertaining – and clap along with the catchy songs, the older of us will be touched by the more poignant messages presented on stage.

The set while minimal, is surprisingly versatile and manages to create a scene as full of life as Mrs Craven’s once blossoming garden. Also contributing to this however, is the skill and energy of the actors (who seemed to be enjoying it almost a much as the audience) and an engrossing script which leads us, willingly, into the heart of the story.

Set between two worlds which could not be more different, the direction manages to perfectly fuse the contrasting cultures of India and Yorkshire (the Yorkshire accents, by the way, are on point). With the Hindi music, chants and dances lending an interesting spiritual aspect to the otherwise traditional world of Edwardian England.

A show that is charming, emotive and just plain lovely, The Secret Garden ends on a high, with a conclusion as heartwarming as a hug from a hot water bottle on a cold, dark night. As the audience clapped along with the closing music I was, for once, delighted to assume that all would live “happily ever after”.

In what are often uncertain times, this production is a tonic for all ages. A comforting reminder that fundamentally we are all the same, we are human. And of course, if we believe in something enough, we can make it happen.

The Secret Garden is showing at Theatre by the Lake until 13 January. For tickets visit or contact the box office on 017687 74411

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