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A CurtainUp London Review
Tom's Midnight Garden
The artistic Director Tony Graham explained to us that with all the potential teething problems of a new theatre, they didn't wish to risk a previously, unproduced play. That is why they chose the award winning Tom's Midnight Garden which was not designed for the Unicorn's new space but for a traditional "end on " stage. The production uses little by way of props and leaves much up to the children's imagination, a little bit like reading a book, in this case Philippa Pearce's 1950s modern children's classic with about a time travelling boy in the 1950s and 1892.
Tom (Rudi Dharmalingam) is sent away to Aunt Gwen (Janet Jefferies) and Uncle Alan's (Ian Stuart Robinson) house in the country while his brother Peter (David Ricardo-Pearce) is infectious with the measles. Left to his own devices, Tom thinks that this might be an ordeal, until at midnight he hears the clock strike thirteen and he goes downstairs and makes a discovery of a secret garden which he couldn't see by daylight. In this garden he meets a girl Hatty (Debra Penny) and all the people from her rather old fashioned world.
Adults play the children in this production but they are all convincing. There is a predicament as to how to portray children in plays, especially ones with punishing schedules of two performances a day to accommodate schools wanting to visit in the school day. I particularly warmed to Debra Penny's Hatty and shuddered at her harsh treatment by the draconian Aunt Grace (Ellen Sheean) who calls her "a pauper, a charity child" and the bullying boy cousins of whom the exception is James (Pete Ashmore). Rudi Dharmalingam has a more difficult role because Tom is at a rather uncommunicative and awkwardly introspective age but he comes to life in his letters to his brother Peter which are so confidential that Peter is instructed to BAR them (Burn After Reading).
I suspect that David Wood's script is very loyal to the original -- important to children who have previously read the book and to teachers. Some of the actors (like the current Watermill production of Sweeney Todd) are called upon to play musical instruments as well as act. The music is important to the atmosphere. As both the 1950s and the 1890s are very far away from today's childhood experience, I think Tom's Midnight Garden may be more meaningful in terms of period to today's grandparents who can remember the 1950s.
I was disappointed that the set of elasticated silver rope barriers which the actors can part to climb through showed nothing of the wonderfully described garden lawns and trees, but maybe the Menier Chocolate Factory's projected images of the night before spoilt me. But the staircase is wonderful and the huge clock dominates the set. Anyway the school children at the performance were more than happy with the play. The Victorian objects Tom sees in the hall are played by the cast and at one point, Hatty falls out of a tree made out of people. When I asked some children what they liked best, they chorused "the tree". So physical theatre has young fans! I liked the costume clues to tie Hatty in the 1950s with her 1890s younger self, the cousin air walking his invisible dog on a visible collar and lead, and the second act with its lovely skating scene on the frozen river. The ending ties up loose ends satisfactorily without being mawkish.
Good luck to the Unicorn in their new home and soon we should be able to see productions designed and directed especially for this exciting new space.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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