Review: The Secret Garden, York Theatre Royal, until August 25. Box office: 01904 623568 or at *****

THE summer family show had become the problem play of the York Theatre Royal calendar, the recent summers of our discontent peaking with last year's loss-making feminist twist on Robin Hood: The Arrow Of Destiny.

Something had to change if the high days of The Railway Children - admittedly staged by the Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum – were to return.

Rather than the more risky process of creating a new production from scratch, as artistic director Damian Cruden had done in tandem with either Mike Kenny or Richard Hurford over past years, new executive director Tom Bird saw the opportunity to invite Theatre by the Lake to re-mount its hit Keswick Christmas production of The Secret Garden. What's more, given the setting of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's story at the mysterious Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire moors,The Secret Garden is coming home.

It was a pragmatic decision, as set design, puppets, music and stage adaptation were already in place, as was director Liz Stevenson, an award-winning hot property of the directing world, who is associate director of both the Keswick theatre and the National Theatre's British and Irish tour of Macbeth.

Eliminating risk might run counter to the artistic ambitions of theatre's producing houses, but this time it made sense, because everything was already rosy in The Secret Garden, although it now needs word of mouth to pump up the volume of box-office traffic for this five-star show suitable for children aged eight, or maybe even six, and upwards.

Let's start with the adaptation by Jessica Swale, another hot property with Blue Stockings and Nell Gwynn to her name. She first adapted The Secret Garden for the outdoors for Grosvenor Park Theatre in Chester four years ago, making minor adjustments to the story such as making more of Mary Lennox's arid, stark, aristocratic childhood years in India; where her parents now die in a 1910 earthquake – far more striking on stage – than in a cholera epidemic.

Orphaned Mary (the remarkable Ella Dunlop, age 24, playing ten) arrives in fnnereal black at Misselthwaite Hall, cold-shouldered by her uncle, Archibald Craven (Chris Jack), for reminding him too much of his late wife, whose death has led him to ban entry to the Secret Garden for ten years now.

Gradually, like the weather, Mary thaws, losing the judgemental frostiness her mother had imbued in her as she warms to her kindly maid, Martha (Coral Sinclair), the weather-worn gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Keith Bartlett) and, in particular, 12-year-old Dickon (Matthew Durkan), with his gift for talking to the animals and birds (portrayed by Peter O'Rourke's delightful puppets).

Yet before the light comes the darkness: why can Mary hear screams from above? Lily Arnold's set design, with its hall of mirrors and trees to the sides, combines indoors and outdoors, and we first see disturbing glimpses of a white-coated boy, Craven's weakling son Colin (Steven Roberts) strapped to a bed by his uncle, Dr Craven (York actor Antony Jardine), a character in the Roald Dahl baddie mode conjured up by Swale.

Stevenson's production – on a par with the National Theatre's Jane Eyre – beautifully balances light and shade, humour and sadness, the garden blossoming as lives take a turn for the better. Not only Arnold's design is magical but so are the compositions of Barnaby Race, who draws inspiration from both English folk and Indian chants to spellbinding effect.

Terrific performances abound, not only from the three leads playing the children with such expression and energy, but the likes of Flo Wilson's exasperated Mrs Wedlock, Jack's Archibald Craven, on his own journey of revival and fresh shoots, and Sinclair's plucky Martha.

As for the garden, please discover its wonders for yourself. For adults and children alike, The Secret Garden is in full bloom, and the Theatre Royal summer family show is smelling of roses anew.

The Secret Garden, York Theatre Royal, until August 25. Box office: 01904 623568 or at