THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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A musical based on the P L Travers stories and the Walt Disney film.
Book by Julian Fellowes; Music by Richard M and Robert B Sherman; new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton St, London W1D 4HS
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
The formidable pairing of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh is a force to be reckoned with and in this blockbuster revival of their 2004 production they’ve delivered a spoonful of sugar for our troubled times.
Yes, it is lavish and as polished as a cut diamond but amid the Rolls-Royce perfection evident in every single department, the piece wins through as entertaining, uplifting and cheerful. It wins you over, it transports you and in its finer moments it achieves that quality of ecstasy which is the hallmark of every great big musical.
For 30 years after the phenomenal success of the movie, the author P L Travers sternly rejected all requests for a stage adaptation but two years before she died Cameron Mackintosh’s charm finally won through. Separating the movie and the stage rights was the key to it and it allowed Mackintosh to extend the material in new directions. He summoned Julian Fellowes to mine other stories in the Mary Poppins series and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to pen some new songs and additional dance music to enhance the Sherman Brothers’ much-loved classics.
Bob Crowley’s remarkable designs are intrinsic to its success. The home of the Banks family opens up like the pages of a Victorian picture book and then he hits you between the eyes with a riot of colour for the “Jolly Holiday” number. Every scene is a feast for the eyes.
Richard Eyre’s direction too is packed with witty detail and maintains a crisp pace. The seamless transitions are often aided by the exemplary illusions of Paul Kieve and Jim Steinmeyer. All this managed to quiet the jaded 8-year olds seated around me in the audience, who probably didn’t expect this at a mere live show.
Then, there is Matthew Bourne’s award-winning choreography, which delights in filling every musical phrase. It is steeped in the vim and vigour of musical hall tradition and as English as fish n chips. He’s blessed of course by two leads in Zizi Strallen as Mary and Charlie Stemp as Bert who are at the peak of their talents, both so-called ‘triple threats’ (sing/dance/act).
Stemp, whose irrepressible boyish energy could fuel the national grid, at one point actually tap dances horizontally up the walls and literally dances on the ceiling of the proscenium arch.
Strallen nails Mary’s duality as both a heavenly visitor as well as the practical taskmistress. While I’ve never understood how the character could be termed lovable (perhaps my name isn’t Rees-Mogg?) she manages to invest her with some warmth.
Joseph Millson mines the pain beneath Mr Banks prim exterior and there’s an intriguing subplot when, Miss Andrew, the evil nanny from his childhood (and the counterbalance to Mary), bursts onto the stage as if she were the Black Swan invading Swan Lake. Claire Moore revels in the “boo-hiss” panto acting here.
Amy Griffiths as Mrs Banks too is revelatory. With an exquisite singing voice, she manages to elevate a supporting role and some lesser known songs into something special. There’s also a gurning panto turn from Claire Machin as the inept, put-upon, family cook. Director Eyre expertly blends the all these contrasting tones: music hall, full on slapstick comedy and sentimental Victorian drama.
In a clever piece of casting, pop legend Petula Clark plays the itinerant Bird Woman. Now aged 87 it is gobsmacking to think she first performed as a child on this same stage (then called the London Casino) entertaining the troops in 1942. A neat link with the past for a show that manages to be both state of the art and steeped in nostalgia.