The Secret Garden @ Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

This year marks the fifth season for Chester’s renowned Open Air Theatre which takes place in Grosvenor Park. A rarity outside of London, the theatre is fast becoming one of the City’s most popular events, with tickets often selling out for the entire season.

Taking place from 4th July – 24th August, Chester Performs have presented us with three fantastic productions this year with the usual combination of Shakespeare plays with something a little different. On offer this year are Macbeth, Comedy of Errors and The Secret Garden. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of open air theatre, it’s quite an experience and one that I urge all theatre lovers to visit. Grosvenor Park’s venue offers covered and uncovered picnic terraces, along with VIP picnicking areas on deck chairs which offer an up close and personal seat. Guests are encouraged to bring along their own picnics and beverages, or have the option of pre-ordering a basket online or buying snacks on site. The plays are performed in the round, giving a really unique experience of a 360 degree stage whilst munching on your sandwiches – or strawberries and champagne, if you’d like to be classy.

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As a Cestrian cultured vulture, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend all three productions and I was lucky enough to attend the very first performance of The Secret Garden. I’d attended the Open Air Theatre in 2012, but I was amazing to see how much the venue and productions themselves had developed. The Secret Garden is a charming tale, but as I had never seen a stage production before, I was a little sceptical about how it would translate as a play, particularly with adult actors. Directed by Kate Saxon and written by Jessica Swale, it’s safe to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by the adaptation.

I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel when I was much younger and the children’s classic will be familiar to many people in some form or another. It has been adapted as a play, musical, opera, film, television series and even anime over the years. The story focuses on 10-year-old Mary Lennox, born in India to wealthy, British parents who have little time for her, leaving much of her care taken on by servants. When her parents, servants and anyone else in the house are killed, Mary is forced to relocate to Yorkshire and live with her estranged Uncle, Mr. Craven. Spoilt, arrogant and bad tempered, Mary struggles to come to terms with her upheaval but soon discovers a big secret about Mr. Craven and his home. There is a secret garden locked away, which has been closed since the sad death or Mr. Craven’s wife many years ago. Befriending servants, animals and local boy Dickon along the way, Mary soon opens up and brings life and magic back to the Manor.

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Chester Performs’ production of The Secret Garden was quite simply, utterly enchanting. It was a beautifully sunny day, perfect for an outdoor theatre experience that transported guests through both a magical secret garden and a gloomy Manor. Jessica Clark played a superb Mary, excellently portraying the character of a young girl who goes on a transformation throughout the story. Kathryn Delaney’s character of Martha the maid, who befriends Mary, was rather brilliant and offered some fantastic comedy moments throughout the show. Another notable performance came from Mark Healy, who played the role of despairing Archibald Craven excellently. I was rather pleased to learn that Healy was also playing the title role in Macbeth, which I would be watching a few days later.

However, despite the brilliant cast, the stars of the show were without a doubt the puppeteers and the fabulous woodland creations, designed and directed by Toby Olié. Unsure of how a production would portray the animals in the story, which are key elements, I thought that the puppets were just incredible. Great care had been taken in their construction, along with studying exactly how each animal would move, from a small mouse scuttling along the ground to a charming robin, fluttering about the place.

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The Secret Garden at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre was a gorgeous production led by an excellent cast. The Chester Performs staff also deserve a mention, as I’ve found them all so lovely and helpful throughout the nights. The outdoor performance made for a rather magical evening and I was left wanting to watch the show all over again. There’s no wonder that the majority of the dates have sold out, leading to extra performances being added. Tickets are still available here for a few dates in August, but hurry, these will almost certainly sell out.

Keep posted for my review of Macbeth, which offered an entirely different experience to the charm of The Secret Garden, albeit an equally exciting one. Tickets are also still available for Macbeth in August, but July is fully booked up, with good reason. If you’re looking for something lighter than the gloom and gore of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, the final production, Comedy of Errors (which I’ve been looking forward to the most), opens next week. However, it’s booking up very quickly, so once again, get your tickets now whilst the weather remains good – or blistering and unbearable, if you’re like me.

Photos courtesy of Chester Performs and www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk.

 

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