REVIEW: London Children’s Ballet’s ‘The Secret Garden’ – Peacock Theatre, July 2024

 

London Children’s Ballet’s The Secret Garden blooms and blooms, ensuring theatregoers of all ages are spellbound by its magic.

Audiences at London’s Peacock Theatre this weekend will join an engaging 50-strong cast of girls and boys (aged 9 to 16) for a beautiful interpretation of a beloved children’s book. The dancing is delightful, the production values are top-notch and the original, classical score is played by a live orchestra.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s immortal 1911 novel reveals that there is magic in everything and everyone. And anyone who has ever engaged with expressive movement – whether by boogieing themselves, watching performances or supporting dancers – knows that dance is a little bit magic. No wonder London Children’s Ballet opted to celebrate 30 years of changing lives through dance by reviving this captivating show.

 

And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 

London Children's Ballet dancers performing The Secret Garden.

 

Founded by Lucille Briance in 1994 and currently led by Jenna Lee while artistic director Ruth Brill is on maternity leave, London Children’s Ballet (LCB) is a unique charity that aims to inspire children from all backgrounds and introduce new audiences to ballet. Each year, following competitive open auditions, up to 50 young dancers are invited to unite as a company and perform in a professionally produced full-length ballet at a West End theatre. An additional 50 or so dancers are selected for LCB’s touring companies, which take a specially adapted version of the stage production out into the community. Significantly, LCB does not discriminate on grounds of height, shape or income – children are chosen based on their ability and participation is free of charge.

This year’s production marks the third time that LCB has unlocked the door to The Secret Garden. The ballet, which is choreographed by Erico Montes, was created and first performed in 2013. It was adapted as a condensed one-act offering in 2017, but the current revival is the first time it has been brought back to life in its entirety.

As befits LCB’s signature style, The Secret Garden is an enchanting narrative ballet and it will exceed your expectations.

The scenario begins in India in the early 1900s, with preparations for Mary Lennox’s birthday party. Mary’s socialite mother (14-year-old Anna Carey, who leaves a lasting impression thanks to her strong technique, expressive arms and exquisite stage presence) is more interested in herself than in her young daughter. Mary’s father is preoccupied by his work and ailing health. Consequently, Mary (12-year-old Constance Rauly) is cared for by an ayah (nanny). Mary is used to getting her own way and has never been shown any real love or affection by her parents, so she is a spoilt child who is prone to tantrums. The celebration starts, with attendants, party guests, debutantes and a palace entertainer (11-year-old Yuno Sato, showing wonderful control and a tangible sense of enjoyment during her solo) all having their moments to shine courtesy of majestically marshalled, scene-setting choreography.

A cholera outbreak suddenly strikes the region, leaving Mary orphaned. Soldiers find her and she is whisked off to England to live with her mysterious uncle, Mr Craven, in his huge, draughty Yorkshire manor. (Wafting dancers, costumed in flowing fabrics, weave through swirling patterns to embody the wuthering winds of the moors.) Here, Mary forms fulfilling friendships, meets her cousin Colin and discovers a neglected garden. Working in the garden – weeding, digging, planting seeds of hope and watching things grow – gives Mary and Colin a new perspective on life and helps them cultivate positive thinking. Happier, healthier and healing from past neglect, they realise that they can blossom and thrive by making their own magic.

 

“The Magic works best when you work, yourself. You can feel it in your bones and muscles.”

Colin Craven, from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 

London Children's Ballet dancers performing The Secret Garden. Toby Gray as Ben Weatherstaff, accompanied by the gardeners.

 

Atmospheric lighting (designed by Mark Jonathan) communicates the passing of time and changing seasons – those wuthering winds are seen again later, scattering gently and lit by a warm glow, as spring winds – in addition to intensifying moods. Attractive sets and costumes (originally Neil Irish and Eva La Blanc, respectively, with additions by Carrie-Ann Stein for this revival) and Artem Vassiliev’s lyrical score (played under the direction of Philip Hesketh) also embellish the eloquent storytelling achieved by the choreography.

But it is the charm that every cast member brings to their role that ultimately makes the characters convincing and wholesomely conveys the story. Maids bustle, guarding the forbidden staircase to the west wing of the house. Galloping gardeners, supervised by grumpy head gardener Ben Weatherstaff (13-year-old Toby Gray, endearingly grouchy and sporting a beard), line up and levitate for laughs while clutching spades. The Robin (14-year-old Ellie Henderson, possessing lovely lines and a buoyant jump) proves to be an adorable assistant – and the cuteness factor flies high when Mrs Robin and the baby robins appear. Roses (led by 14-year-old Darcey Georgeson, divinely graceful), petals and butterflies unfurl, flutter and dance in the breeze.

Constance Rauly (who made her LCB debut in last year’s production, Snow White, as an 11-year-old) is compelling as Mary, mastering the mime required for the role and bringing meaning to all her interactions. She is accompanied by 13-year-olds Joshua Moisey and Fredric de Almeida Whitehouse (who also made his LCB debut last year), as spirited country boy Dickon and sickly cousin Colin, respectively. All three youngsters give convincing, polished performances as the central characters.

The story of The Secret Garden emphasises the importance of compassion, commitment and collaboration, which are all values held by LCB. The show is simply a pleasure to watch.

Who wouldn’t want to delight in the magic of dance while supporting a nurturing charity? I’m already looking forward to the 2025 ballet!

 

“The sun is shining—the sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing—the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic—being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me—the Magic is in me. It is in me—it is in me. It’s in every one of us.”

Colin Craven, from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 

London Children's Ballet dancers performing The Secret Garden. Constance Rauly as Mary Lennox and Ellie Henderson as The Robin.

 

 

*Production photography by Arnaud Stephenson (Photography by ASH).

 

London Children’s Ballet’s The Secret Garden continues at Peacock Theatre on Saturday 6 July (performances at 1.30pm and 5.30pm) and Sunday 7 July (performances at 12.30pm and 4.30pm).

Running time: Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes, including one interval.

 

 

To learn more about dancing with, and supporting, London Children’s Ballet visit the LCB website and follow @lcbballet on Instagram and @lcblondon on X (formerly Twitter).

 

 

Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.

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