Stage musical The Secret Garden stars Siobhan Redmond
Cross-generational appeal of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel makes for ideal festive show
In making its transition from classic novel to stage musical, The Secret Garden has lost none of its dark atmosphere actress Siobhan Redmond tells Yasmin Sulaiman
It’s a century since the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but this seminal work of children’s literature has only grown in stature through time. The tale of Mary, an orphaned girl who seeks refuge in a blooming hidden garden after she is forced to live with her depressed uncle and wheelchair-bound cousin in their gloomy Yorkshire manor, is rightly celebrated for its mature handling of childhood loss and love. And though the book has undergone several live-action reworkings, it’s the 1991 Tony Award-winning musical adaptation that composes the Festival Theatre’s Christmas offering this year, featuring original music and lyrics by Lucy Simon (sister of Carly Simon) and Marsha Norman.
Lauded Scottish actress Siobhan Redmond, recently seen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of David Greig’s Dunsinane, plays the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Medlock in this new Edinburgh production. Interestingly, while Redmond has never appeared in a musical before this will not be a hindrance to her performance because she plays the only character in The Secret Garden that does not sing. ‘Mrs Medlock is simultaneously appallingly practical and rather spooky,’ she says, ‘so she doesn’t have the kind of heightened emotion that makes people sing or burst into verse. It’s a dream come true for me because I can sing along from the wings, and I probably will drone along with the baritone, but there’s no pressure because my character doesn’t sing.’
Despite the book’s often dark atmosphere, Redmond is convinced that its translation into musical form still maintains its original intense emotion. ‘There’s a great longing in that book,’ she explains. ‘The music in this production is very beautiful and expresses that feeling of yearning very well. I think as soon as we stop being children ourselves, we start sanitising what it is that we think children can cope with, when in fact children are often much more direct and honest when dealing with difficult things.’
Running alongside the show is its Book Project, through which Primary 7 classes in Edinburgh and the Lothians have access to free copies of The Secret Garden and accompanying learning materials. However, Redmond admits that the novel was not one she read as a child. ‘I read all the LM Montgomery books instead so I only came to it as an adult. But I think it’s quite an extraordinary book and it deals with subjects you could spend a lifetime on. How do you cope when people you love have died? How do you carry them in your heart and move forward with your life? That stuff, that’s the business of living really.’
Ultimately, Redmond believes that it’s this cross-generational appeal that makes The Secret Garden completely appropriate for the festive season. ‘I think it deals with themes that relate not only to children but also to grown-ups,’ she says. ‘Anybody who’s ever loved anyone will find something to recognise in this show. It’s not an obvious Christmas story as such but what could be more lovely in the heart of winter than to look forward to a green place, the promise of spring and finding love again after the ground has been lying fallow?’
The Secret Garden, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Thu 9 Dec–Sat 8 Jan.