Friday, February 16, 2018

Knotty Children - The Secret Garden and Pinocchio - Theatre Reviews

The Secret Garden - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Paul Ledoux, adapted from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Mar. 17th 2018

Pinocchio - National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre - London, UK - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Dennis Kelly, with songs from the Walt Disney film by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith, Directed by John Tiffany
Runs until Apr. 10th 2018


The latest stagings for some kids classics gets some extra layers that deepen the stories and bring back some complexity to stories that had been simplified over the years. Tales of naughty children in The Secret Garden is given some extra shading with the casting of an Indian Mary at the centre of Frances Hodgson Burnett's original story. While Mary had always been born in India, it was written as a British child born away and returns home after the loss of her parents, but with the switch in ethnicities, and returning to a relative's English household, thus making Colin part Indian as well, gives the story an added aspect of colonialism. Over at the National Theatre, a new version of Disney's second film Pinocchio by Dennis Kelly, accentuates the darkness and creepiness more in tune with the original Carlo Collodi than the Disney film. Kelly, who turned Roald Dahl's Matilda into a successful musical, seems in opposition to the Disney aesthetics. Kelly's version of Pinocchio definitely ramps up the naughty children and, while still keeping Pinocchio on Disney's strings by melding the classic songs from the film, into this darker, slightly more adult version, helmed by John Tiffany. It's kudos to Disney Theatricals for allowing their properties to be given this chance to grow up, but like their stage version of The Jungle Book helmed by Mary Zimmerman (which yielded a far more spiritual, zen version of that classic), it often makes for an odd entity under the guise of Disney.


YPT's The Secret Garden is a nice slow and patient version with a wonderful Natalia Gracious as Mary, with Gracious managing to make the precocious, entitled, and selfish Mary a worthy heroine when it could have easily been cloying or annoying. She's eventually joined by a lovely Vivien Endicott Douglass as Martha, a servant, and a charming Benjamin Sutherland as Dichon, the village boy Mary befriends as they discover the mysteries of the house and the secret garden within it. Jack Runeckles plays Colin, Mary's hidden sick cousin, who like Mary, acts like a naughty entitled brat, but whom Runeckles somehow manages to make likeable. Simon Branken is great as both Lord Craven and Dr. Craven, while Dan Lett and Sarah Mennell round out the adult help of the manor.

There is a peacefulness to the production on Teresa Przybylski's simple but effectively changing set, as the mystery of the manor as Mary adjusts to her new life in England is slowly revealed. The story feels like a slow burn, and the added switch in Mary's origin, which changes little in the overall story, gives the play some added diversity and brings into the question of Indian colonialism, and even giving it a bit of a switch here, where the Indian children end up being in a higher class system than the caucasian folks working around the manor. It also gives Colin's story a greater dimension, as his father ignores him particularly as a reminder to his dead Indian mother and their similar features.


In John Tiffany's staging of Pinocchio, a joyously charming Joe Idris-Roberts plays our wooden boy Pinocchio as a life-size boy, while Toby Olié's giant puppet heads on Bob Crowley's oversize sets (and costumes) creates an oversized adult world that Pinocchio years to become a part of. With Dennis Kelly's added twisted tone, and some mutations of some of the famous songs, including a reprise of a morphed version of "When You Wish Upon A Star" during Pinocchio's introduction to fame, reminds us that this lesson on becoming a real man is a bumpy, and episodic journey. It's part of the nature of Collodi's original story, but the episodic nature of Pinocchio's journey doesn't necessarily make for a smooth experience as a stage entity, but Tiffany and the stage magic he creates, certainly makes it for an entertaining experience. And with Idris-Roberts centre stage, he pulls our heartstrings without showing any of the threads.

Audrey Brisson is a female Jiminy Cricket, and David Langham plays the Sly Fox, as they guide, or manipulate Pinocchio through this journey of life, but while Brisson and Langham are terrific in their roles, the characters as written seem like they are on differing paths, with Jiminy sounding far too modern at times, while the Sly Fox's villainous streak seem divorced from the overall arch, despite having the plot points directly affected by his machinations. As I had similar problems with Kelly's book for Matilda, I found while he manages to convey the dark tone he's yearning for, the emotional points never quite come through as he's working hard to hit all the plot points, and in Pinocchio's case, all the numerous adventures and troubles the wooden boy falls into. The plot strings are pulled but alas, all the emotional strings are purely from the hands of Idris-Roberts, who reminded me of the innate charm of Daniel Radcliffe.

Photos of Pinocchio by Manuel Harlan 
Photo of The Secret Garden by Cylla von Tiedemann
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