Writer: P L Travers
Book: Julian Fellowes
Original Music and Lyrics: Richard M Sherman, Robert B Sherman
New Songs and additional music:, George Stiles, Andrew Drewe
Director: Richard Eyre
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Expectations are high. Thanks to a new Disney heyday over the past few years, kids are turning to the oldies and Mary Poppins is, in many households, up there with Frozen for repeat viewings. Not only that, but the adult audience who grew up with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and the film’s timeless and relentlessly catchy songs have come expecting some magic.
Jane (Lucy Simmonds) and Michael Banks (Lewis Fernée) have just seen off another nanny with their unruly behaviour, when out of nowhere pops up Mary Poppins (Zizi Strallen) to take up the challenge. Given that she doesn’t miss a trick, she’s soon on the case of Mr Banks (Milo Twomey) who is demonstrating something of a blasé attitude towards his offspring, and hardly has time for his long-suffering wife (Rebecca Lock). In a house full of stuff and servants, there’s very little love.
Although hanging on the big, familiar numbers, the production manages to retain some of the universal themes present in P L Traver’s original book. When Cameron Mackintosh met the elderly Travers in 1993, the two struck up a great friendship, and it was his commitment to respect her work that won her over. It’s unfortunate that some of the performances don’t quite hold up in this respect. Twomey is equally unconvincing as the emotionally absent father as the doting dad he supposedly becomes at the end, and Rebecca Lock as Mrs. Banks struggles with an underwritten part, making them a rather dull, unsympathetic pair.
In fact, it’s rather left to the children to hold together the plausibility of the story. Luckily Simmonds as Jane, and particularly the nine-year old Fernée as Michael, manage to just about save the day with their sharp, confident performances. There are also some great supporting cast members, and two that particularly deserve a mention. Wreh-asha Walton brings some sassy fun as the beguiling Mrs Corry, purveyor of magic sweets and words, and Penelope Woodman is the ultimate pantomime baddie as short-lived replacement nanny Miss Andrew, with a huge performance that gets lots of laughs.
The big musical scenes, though, are where the production hits its highest points. Things really get going with Jolly Holiday when a dreary walk in the park turns into the psychedelic, dream-like carnival of colour. Bob Crowley’s scenery and costume, Natasha Katz’s lighting design and Matthew Bourne’s choreography all come together to create real theatrical magic that delights everyone in the audience from the very youngest to the grown ups.
And from there it doesn’t stop – A Spoonful Of Sugar is delivered with pantomimic comedy and lots of fun theatrical stunts, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is like a riotous fancy-dress party with the most extraordinary guests, and Step In Time brings the house down with its mesmerising dance routines and brilliant technical tricks. In between, the more melodic songs are given a hazy, nostalgic feel. Feed The Birds against a majestic animated backdrop of the city of London, Let’s Go Fly A Kite with figures in silhouette, like illustrations from an Edwardian children’s book. All really beautifully envisaged.
Zizi Strallen as Mary and Matt Lee as Bert have a tough job. Both manage to create characters that retain enough of Andrews and Van Dyke to feel familiar, but without any trace of parody. Strallen has the necessary ‘practically perfect’ look, slightly disturbing smile and haughty air for a very watchable Mary, coupled with great vocal and dance skills. Lee creates a cheeky, loveable Bert but really wows when he shows off his dance moves. The two really hold the production together.
Oh, and there’s some flying…but saying too much really would spoil the magic.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Photo:Johan-Persson