Step out of your comfort zone

A few common ethoses used for challenging oneself are: Try something new, get out of your comfort zone or experience something different. This is precisely what I did when I was invited to the press night of Barn Theatre’s new inaugural production of Marsha Norman’s musical The Secret Garden. I have never been to the Cotswolds or Cirencester before. It is very rare indeed for me to see a theatre production outside of the city. (It’s bad, I know.)

I often see advertisements about theatre in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, but, unfortunately, as much as I’d like to see a show outside of the capital, I don’t have enough time in my schedule; I blame logistics and bad timings for not seeing enough regional theatre.

On Monday’s press night, even the musical was brand new to me. Yet while I had many first-time experiences, there were other parts that I was familiar with too, such as the original text written by the author Frances Hodgson Burnett. I recall reading the book when I was at primary school briefly, but I could never forget the film directed by Agnieszka Holland. It is a vivid part of my childhood which was re-awakened in director Dominic Shaw’s production.

Puppets created by Elliot Ditton

Puppets created by Elliot Ditton

This was a special occasion. Barn Theatre is exactly what it was — a theatre that was, once upon a time, a barn, filled with hay and livestock (I’d like to imagine). Designer PJ McEvoy’s set has some kind of rustic feel to the environment. The lighting plays a crucial role; the beginning of the musical is a haze of darkness and the characters are a mystery until they start to develop as the musical goes on. Natural effects, flowers and greenery are shown through digital imagery and video projections, recreating various scenes, moving from a library of endless bookshelves to auntie Lily’s secret garden; a butterfly hoovers from the right side of the garden to the other corner on the left.

What makes this production even more delicate is its use of shadows and peculiar puppets. Elliot Ditton’s rope-made puppetry is emotive and enchanting. It really makes the children’s story open to a family audience despite however macabre the start of the musical may seem. The production is produced so stylishly by its edgy soloists. And Lucy Simon’s score, musical detail and phrasing draws the hopeful spirit of the story, shedding some light on to auntie Lily’s hidden beauty — her secret garden.

Jaimie Prouden as Lily

Jaimie Prouden performs as the ethereal auntie Lily

This production is an adaptation of the musical; it is accompanied by folk music as opposed to an orchestra of 25 musicians. There are up to 12 soloists together, including the members of the ensemble, who are all musically equipped. They are all trained singers who can play a musical instrument: either beat a drum; play the piano; or strum the strings of a guitar.

I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you what will happen. None the less, I can say that the story is filled with a sense of longing: what may seem like a morbid topic is in actuality an uplifting narrative by the end. Daniella Piper’s Mary Lennox is bitter and hard to like at first, but the audience learn to enjoy her character, her patience with Colin and willingness to keep his spirits up. Piper also has a great way of engaging with the audience.

Craven performed by David Haydn. Minal Patel as Archibald Craven’s brother.

Jaimie Prouden, dressed in a white corset with flowers in her hair, performs as the ethereal character Lily. She acts like a loving ghost on stage that never seems to want to leave. Her marvellous voice shines through. Jenny O’Leary as the Yorkshire lass Martha is a laugh and tickle. More noticeable is her strong and brilliant vocal prowess though. Her voice sells itself and should not be missed.

Minal Patel also has rich vocal abilities despite his puzzling character as Mary’s uncle; he seems confused about Colin’s self-improvement. I believe we are not meant to like his character much, but Patel still makes a convincing performance as Archibald Craven’s pressured brother. David Haydn, performing as a gentle father and heart broken husband, has a beautiful voice. His own depiction of a vulnerable and torn guardian is touching. And Alex James Ellison’s performance of fun-loving Dickon is persuasively playful — he knows how to raise the roof, and get the audience’s feet stomping, when needed.

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Steffan Rizzi, Daniella Piper, Alex James Ellison, Jamie Ross, Celia Cruwys-Finnigsan and Ben Boskovic.

The ensemble, including Steffan Rizzi, Jamie Ross, Sue Appleby (also musical director), Celina Cruwys-Finnigan and Ben Boskovic, play an integral part: from producing assuring vocal harmonies or maintaining a swift and energetic momentum in the classic childhood and heartfelt tale.

Returning back to my point about first-time experiences, the communal part is also new to me: the element of it being produced for the community as well as a wider audience. Sitting in the Barn Theatre it felt like I was sitting in a local establishment that could bring many people from Cirencester together. It has a bar, a hotel and, most of all, a great space to showcase intriguing productions, exactly like The Secret Garden. There’s also the Barn Academy and Outreach programme for artists in the community who want to be involved more with the theatre’s own projects. It is a message that its artistic director Iwan Lewis is proud to put out there.

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Steffan Rizzi. Jaimie Pruden and Jamie Ross.

I was fortunate enough to get a coach ride to Barn Theatre. Would my fellow Londoners and other theatregoers outside of Cirencester consider venturing out of their comfort zone just like I did? Maybe yes, maybe no. When the show ended on Monday night I heard people from the audience say, ‘this is the best show I have ever seen!’ I’m guessing they were local. The best shows don’t have to exist in the West End; it can be found in little, poky pubs or large places situated far away in remote areas. Simply having a diligent and enthusiastic company like Barn Theatre, and a group of talented performers and creative artists, can make performance miracles. On a good day, without traffic, a car can get to Barn Theatre within 90 minutes or so, and because it’s in the Cotswolds you could try and make a cultural day out of it. But that’s only if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone.

The Secret Garden is showing at Barn Theatre, Cirencester now – April 15.

Purchase your tickets on the Barn Theatre website, here.

I was provided a press ticket.