By Flossie Waite
Imagine Festival, Southbank Centre
3.00pm, 23rd February
This review comes to you from Chaffweed Chaplin, still wearing a magical hat at a jaunty angle in order to enter the Secret Garden. Any production that requires its audience to congregate at a mysterious meeting point, and wear a name tag and magical clothing, automatically gets brownie points. These are lovely touches in a production bursting with lovely concepts. However, Secret Garden struggled to transcend being just a string of great ideas, though they were courageously held together by the two kooky Cockney tour guides, played by Bernadette Russell and Gareth Brierley.
Secret Garden is a promenade performance, beginning in a nondescript room where the audience is prepared for their adventure: to try and find the secret garden, and spot some magical creatures along the way. From there, the story leads us onto the rooftop garden of the Southbank Centre in hot pursuit of ‘Bunnyzillas’. Using the secret word and completing challenges, we are allowed to see the Bunnyzillas in their natural environment, from May Pole dancing to food growing (various flower beds reveal wonderful labels such as ‘icecreamulus maximus.’)
The introduction was beautifully written; so imaginative and very funny. There were plenty of quips for adults to enjoy: a child’s drawings adorning the walls were pointed out as ‘an artistic representation of creatures from the secret garden, by a relative unknown called Damien Hirst.’ Our mission, and all the preparation involved, created an atmosphere of excitement. And it was genuinely exciting when, having been led outside onto the Southbank, ‘Bunnyzillas’ started popping up from behind staircases, to be quickly pursued. Some of the choreography, by Kerry Fletcher and Natasha Khamjani of Folk Dance Remixed, worked really well: the Crumbling Concrete Corridor of Slippery Secrets involved all of the Bunnyzillas dancing together to create an archway, with secrets (such as ‘I hate fried eggs’) whispered into the ears of those passing underneath.
However. Aside from Russell and Brierley, it was hard not to feel that for the rest of the cast this was a half-term holiday job. The trio of musicians looked a bit embarrassed to be there. The Bunnyzillas were dancers rather than actors, so they moved like a dream but were a bit dead behind the eyes. Their performances often dropped – when we were all led into the most secret part of the secret garden, the Bunnyzillas walking behind were discussing members of the audience.
Some of the crowd seemed to get a lot from this experience, and the ending – tying a wish to a tree, having a jig, and being given some seeds for your own secret garden – was undeniably sweet. However, Brierley and Russell are storytellers by trade, so whilst the absolute very best moments were when they were storytelling, this also meant that the production as a whole just didn’t quite work.
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