Tom’s Midnight Garden review


The Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham

Saturday 14th December 2019

     ’Tis the season to be jolly… While Cinderella pulls in the punters at the Everyman, down the way at the intimate Cheltenham Playhouse, Bishops Cleeve-based Dreamshed have just opened their Yuletide account with David Wood’s adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden which runs until Christmas Eve.

     I’ll be totally frank: not knowing the original book at all, I came to this production with an entirely open mind and what turned out to be a raft of totally misplaced preconceptions. I expected a beautiful wintry setting, twinkling fairy lights, perhaps a passing unicorn, an enchantress casting magic spells and a smattering of sweet songs. No such luck. But what I did get was an absorbing, almost dark and Shakespearean interpretation that owed much to that old theatrical adage Less is More, and even The Woman in Black, which is exactly how many of the eight-strong cast were costumed for much of this decidedly alternative nostalgiafest. While it is set chiefly during the late Victorian age, in their 1950s long grey shorts, sleeveless sweaters and pinafore dresses, they could easily have stepped straight out of The Railway Children.

     There’s a lot of mime and clever improvisation in this production, leaving the audience to fill in the many blanks. The set is merely a low stone wall and some adaptable triangular blocks that morph on cue into beds, tables and chairs; only the beautifully lit clock-cum-moon remains constant, casting its silvery glow over what we have to imagine is Tom’s mystical midnight garden.  

     So, don’t expect a pantomime, but it’s still a good old-fashioned tale that should warm the proverbial cockles during these rain-sodden December days, and there’s a clever twist to it all which caught me totally off guard.

     Under Bill Cronshaw’s deft direction, the capable cast carry it all impressively before them, delivering their lines with almost monastic grandeur. You may well find the phrase “Time no longer!” re-echoing in your mind for some while to come, as will images of Alex Lewer’s dim but highly atmospheric lighting in mine.

     If you feel stressed out by the relentless tide of this year’s Christmas jollifications (and the election), spend a couple of restful and pleasant hours at the Playhouse and relive a time that is long gone, but which will prove a gentle tonic as 2019 draws to a close.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Simon Lewis