A temporary theatre in a park, with walls and no roof? My seven year old was confused and could not quite imagine the scene at Grosvenor Open Air Theatre in Chester. My eldest son who is 12 has been to quite a varied mix of productions and is very interested in behind the scenes and how it is all put together. Thank goodness you are told to bring cushions to sit on and hats because the sun was baking as we waited to enter, if you forget you can rent cushions and even get a squirt of sun cream from the happy and helpful staff that come round offering it with a smile. Anything ‘open air’ brings a delightful array of picnics and food, smoked salmon with lemon wedges beautifully arrange on a plate, strawberry cheesecake, many corks a popping to a few packets of ready-made sandwiches; each to their own and why not!
As the first main character came bustling on in her burnt orange silk evening gown, everyone went quiet and it all began apace. After a very moving earthquake scene where Mary Lennox’s parents die and Mary is found in the debris, she is then whisked off to England without care or explanation. Beautifully played by Jessica Clark, Mary strikes a delicate balance between sadness, fright and hostility. Eventually after many seemingly futile attempts by maid Martha (Kathryn Delaney) to break through Mary’s defiant exterior they become friends of sorts, enough to keep them in sync with each other through shared secrets and the need they both have to break out of their allotted path in life. My eldest learned over and whispered ‘why are they all being so mean to Mary, she’s done nothing wrong?’ I had to totally agree with him.
Even in the hot afternoon heat and bright sunshine you could feel the cold and despair of Misselthwaite Manor and its inhabitants, locked and forgotten in the grip of grief like the Secret Garden Mary eventually discovers. With various delicate instruments adding not only soundtrack but story, played by the actors mesmerizing the audience and even a couple of visiting wood pigeons settling on the lighting rigging for what seemed like most of the second half.
When Mary stands up to Mrs Medlock (Heather Phoenix) you could hear her shout not only for the Archibald Craven (Mark Healy) but for herself after years of not being heard or listened too. When they all see the fruits of her labours not only with the boy and the garden, I did not know whether to whoop and holler at her success or weep at her courage and ferocity of voice. All I can say is that my sunglasses hid the tear or two that welled up.
The verdict of my children? Not only did they find the story sad and triumphant, but were fascinated that one person could play many characters in the same play with different lines and costume; how on earth did they remember, know what to do and be two or three people? All the cast were just superb and in one single afternoon showcased to many children like mine the true joy of theatre, acting and being part of a wonderful production.
Thankfully the Victorian attitude of children being seen and not heard is long gone, but I have a note ripped from a magazine on my fridge that says ‘Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them it has always been big stuff”.
The puppets, especially the Bloodhound dog are so real, with gentle, subtle movement and eyes that sparkled in the sun were and cleverly handled, making even more magic seep through the performance. The little red robin was so charming and delightful next to the Yorkshire funny gruff of the Head Gardener. The entire afternoon was a delight from start to finish and both my children now know what a roofless theatre in a park is all about!
Full details and ticket information can be found here. More shows have been added, not to be missed! All photos by Mark McNulty.