For all the insistence on charms in the plot of “The Secret Garden,” Adrian Noble’s Royal Shakespeare Co. London preem of a decade-old show could use some plain, flat-out charm if it is to cast a theatrical spell beyond children’s holiday time. There’s no denying the care and attention that have gone into rethinking a Broadway long-runner from 1991 only now receiving its London debut, if only so that a musical based on a beloved English children’s classic will feel at home in its country of origin. But for all the cosmetic changes from the New York original — a far less busy set, a swifter opening sequence, some reordering and reworking of both the book and Lucy Simon’s buoyant score — the show still feels suspended between a banal self-help handbook and a troubling inquiry into real grief that the creators don’t seem to know what to do with. A few performers get the balance right and even catch at the throat, the thrilling Philip Quast most especially. Nevertheless, what remains is a work that is certainly open to RSC-style classical acumen, but hasn’t yet fully received it.
Dry ice is forgivable (still, must there really be quite this much?), but when it comes to “The Secret Garden,” dry eyes are not. All the more reason, then, to sit up at the first appearance of Quast’s Archibald Craven, a man beset by mourning for the lovely Lily (Meredith Braun) who died 10 years before. Father to Colin (Luke Newberry), the sickly child whom his late wife left behind, Archie no more wants to come to terms with his family — a seethingly jealous brother, Neville (Peter Polycarpou), included — than he does with his own barely suppressed feelings of guilt and blame.
What Archie needs is the release and rebirth similarly sought by his orphaned niece, Mary Lennox (Natalie Morgan), who finds succor in the hidden garden of the title. In “The Secret Garden,” you don’t just wait for Anthony Ward’s sliding, Perspex-paneled set to bloom, which it does far less fancifully than Heidi Ettinger’s somewhat overdesigned Broadway original. The characters exist to follow nature’s lead, too.
Marsha Norman’s book can’t resist pounding home Frances Hodgson Burnett’s delicately expressed themes. “It’s been locked up,” Mary says to Colin of the garden, “just like you’ve been locked up” in Misselthwaite, the forbidding Yorkshire manor that he none too happily calls home. “There’s a lot of things that looks dead,” says local lad Dickon (a delightfully feisty Craig Purnell, his carrot-colored hair a welcome indication during the course of the show that some much-needed fun may well be at hand). “(But) they’re just biding their time.”
If Norman’s psychology is strictly pro forma, at least Quast is on hand to embody the darker, self-contradictory impulses that the writing shies away from. Having played Neville in this show’s Australian premiere, Quast moves up to the larger role of Archie like one to the manner — and manor — born, his imposing physique turned almost inward to accommodate this most haunted of hunchbacks. Archie is first seen from behind, lost in contemplation of a painting of Lily, a canvas that (a neat touch) looks faded, as if it, too, were lost to the viewer.
Very much evident is Archie’s tussle within — prompted by Mary’s resemblance to her uncle’s dead wife — which comes pouring forth to revelatory effect at the start of act two. Quast partners a mustachioed Polycarpou on a knockout duet of “Lily’s Eyes,” the song positioned later than it was on Broadway, and then draws audible sniffles in the scene by the ailing Colin’s bedside, when Archie realizes that the dragon whom he is describing might well be himself.
A double Olivier Award winner (for “Sunday in the Park With George” and “The Fix”), Quast here makes a bid for a third, his voice soaring almost Sweeney Todd-like in anguish one minute, floating a lovely falsetto the next. As a depiction of the relentless grip of memory, the performance shakes the entire evening by the scruff of its neck.
That’s no bad thing, either, given a host of unexpectedly stock performances (Linzi Hateley’s Martha, the maid, among them), Chris Parry’s notably unatmospheric lighting, and some cutesy choreography from Gillian Lynne that makes a halfhearted stab at a Susan Stroman-esque deployment of props (garden implements, mostly). Three children each share the crucial roles of Mary and Colin, but neither of the opening-night pair suggests a career-in-the-making. Newberry’s large, wounded eyes are perfect for the bedridden young boy, but his singing lets him down, not least during “Round Shouldered Man,” Colin’s fantasy of release.
Morgan can sing up a storm, all right, and throw tantrums and pull any of a dozen or so inexpressive faces. But she’s so busy bullying herself about the stage that her Mary Lennox seems ripe less for regeneration amid the final flotilla of roses than to play the sullen daughter in a stage version of “The Exorcist.” Now who’s been keeping that idea secret?