The Secret Garden

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Four stars

Touring until March 8

Mark Thomas: 50 Things About Us

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Four Stars

Touring until May 1

Scotland’s small, but accomplished, children’s theatre sector has a fine track record of creating imaginative productions that thrill and fascinate their young audiences. Few companies have contributed more in this regard than Red Bridge Arts (producer of such brilliant shows as Stick By Me, Space Ape, Night Light and Black Beauty).

The North Queensferry-based company would appear to have another hit on its hands with Rosalind Sydney’s new adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much loved story of The Secret Garden. The play is, in some ways, a decidedly modern take on Hodgson Burnett’s tale of an orphan girl from colonial India who is sent to England to live in the grand house of her rich, reclusive uncle.

For a start, the little girl, Mary (who is played splendidly by Itxaso Moreno), has been orphaned, not by a cholera epidemic, but by a war. When she arrives in the palatial abode of Mr Craven, she is not only far from home, but also unable to speak English (she comforts herself by singing a folk song in the Basque language, which is Moreno’s mother tongue).

Lonely and afraid, Moreno’s Mary faces the redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Gavin Jon Wright) and the well-intentioned housemaid Martha (Sarah Miele) with a wonderfully comic truculence. The actor imbues her character with such boldness, in both personality and physicality, that she creates an almost instant rapport with the young audience. That identification is palpably constant throughout Mary’s journey from bereaved sullenness to the joys of friendship and discovery in the late Mrs Craven’s beautiful garden.

Played by a cast of just three, necessity (as so often in Scottish theatre) proves to be the mother of invention as actors gender shift between roles. Wright doubles up as Martha’s intrepid, younger brother Dickon, and Miele plays Mr Craven’s sickly, and comically paranoid, son Colin.

The Secret Garden is a story well-suited to our anxious times, directed, as it is, towards human solidarity in the face of fear and loss. This strong staging of it enjoys tight co-direction by Sydney and Ian Cameron, smart, semi-minimalist design by Karen Tennant, excellent, atmospheric sound and music by Danny Krass, and delightfully exuberant movement direction by Robbie Synge.

For those of us (in Scotland, a clear majority) who are still reeling from the victory of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in December’s general election, Mark Thomas’s latest show, 50 Things About Us, promised to be something of an antidote. The Prime Minister - who equates Muslim women wearing the niqab with “letterboxes” and calls gay men “tank-topped bum boys” – is, the self-proclaimed “ex-anarchist” comedian and activist proclaims, like an “alcoholic Hugh Grant in a fat suit”.

The “us” in the title of the show (which plays Dundee and Stirling next month) are the peoples of the UK. The “50 things” are those aspects of the state and the folk who live in it which Thomas loves and hates.

One of the things he hates, as he made clear first off in Glasgow, is English nationalism. If or when the people of Scotland vote for independence, it will, Thomas thinks, be like we’re finally leaving an abusive relationship.

Other targets include Tory barrow boy MP Mark Francois (an “EDL Care Bear”) and land use in the UK (six per cent is given over to grouse moors, he says, which is more than for domestic dwellings). The things he loves include the Daily Mail-confounding fact that the London Bridge attacker was stopped by someone armed with a narwhal tusk and a prisoner on day release.

Typically of Thomas’s stage shows, there is an impressive amount of research and a prodigious memory behind what almost seems like a stream of consciousness. Typically, there’s also time for some asides.

He loves the Glasgow Film Theatre, but hated the movie he watched there (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks, is “so saccharine it’s got diabetes”). He’s also not a fan of theatregoers lighting up the auditorium with their mobile phones during the performance (“Tory behaviour”), and, un-Britishly, challenged a patron who was doing so.

We have become accustomed to Thomas’s stage works (such as Showtime from the Frontline and 100 Acts of Minor Dissent) having conceptual, theatrical and technical elements that distinguish them from stand-up comedy. In truth, 50 Things About Us, in which the comic speaks with only the occasional aid of a tablet computer, is much closer to a comedy club routine (and it’s none the worse for that).

As ever, Thomas’s intelligence, mischief and anger are a winning combination. If only he could be granted his wish to become director of the British Museum, whereby he’d return its imperial plunder and open not one, but two rooms dedicated to the late Ian Dury.

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