Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden at John Cooper Studios

Much beloved as a children’s novel published in 1958, Tom’s Midnight Garden had escaped me as a child and I came to this production with a totally open mind.
It is an exquisite story about loneliness, isolation and finding companionship in an unlikely setting.

By Angie Millard

Tom, played with utter sincerity and focus by Jimmy Dalgleish, is staying with his aunt and uncle because his brother has measles. He is awake one night when the old Grandfather clock strikes thirteen and subsequent investigation leads him into a garden which doesn’t exist during the day. Here he meets Hattie and gradually witnesses the sadness of her life.

The monochrome set features the clock face over a door through which Tom cannot normally go. The cast perform in traverse and opposite Tom’s elevated room is a three piece orchestra and a place where his brother sits to read Tom’s letters. This frees the acting space for the scenes which go back in time; but managing the climbs to Tom’s area caused some delays and gaps in the action on the opening night.

Hattie (Olivia Caley) plays with Tom and as the play progresses we see her growing older and finding happiness. Caley accomplishes the slow changes required with subtlety while Tom remains trapped in the present. I was reminded of Peter Pan and Wendy.

There are some carefully constructed scenes which Readman creates using mime and movement. A skating sequence takes on a ghostly quality as Tom begins to realise that he is no longer part of Hattie’s life. Throughout the director manages to give the piece Gothic overtones and the contrast with Tom’s daily life works as an effective foil.

Maggie Smailes plays Aunt Gwen with warmth and credibility. She begins with the forced jollity of a surrogate mother and moves gradually into a really protective maternal figure. Andrew Isherwood plays the double role of Uncle Alan, genial and kind, unlike his other role of the antagonistic, wary figure of Abel the gardener. Abel can see Tom while to all the rest of Hattie’s family he is invisible. It is heart warming when he finally accepts him because he is searching with Hattie in the bible for the angel’s words in Revelations; The angel says ‘time shall be no more’ and at first Tom doesn’t understand although her figure is on the clock face.

Time is key to the play and when finally Tom goes to Mrs Batholomew and holds up his hand to meet hers, in a gesture they shared in the past, we realise that she is in fact the grown up Hattie. This is a fragile and intensely moving moment played beautifully by Beryl Nairn. She too has been cast in an interesting double as the cruel Aunt Grace who sets out to make Hattie’s life unbearable. Her manipulation of her sons played by James Fleming, Jimmy Dalgleish and Jack Hambleton (who double as Tom and Barty) is insidious and effective. Like Andrew Isherwood she defines the roles so that we forget that they are doubling.

The music acts as a good accompaniment but at times makes the actors inaudible. It is excellent to have a three piece band but I hope that as the play runs the balance of sound will improve.

Tom has learnt the strange relativity of time and the ghosts he meets in the Midnight Garden teach him about the transient quality of it. He thinks he visits Hattie every night while she complains of his absences. Hattie has dreamed of her past life and Tom has entered her sleeping world until she needed him no more.

Plays are different from prose but this version made me ponder on the nature of time and I’m still considering the issues raised today, not bad for a children’s book.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is playing at John Cooper Studio from Fri 13 to Sat 21 March 2020. It is adapted by David Wood from the novel by Philippa Pearce. The director is Robert Readman. Original music composed by Ed Atkin. Lighting and sound by Adam Moore.