A few months ago I saw that this show was coming to Wyndham’s and I thought it might make a decent matinee treat for the Squire of Sidcup and me, as he’s a big fan of Stephen Mangan and I just like seeing plays. Then came the news that the show was closing early due to poor sales – and I realised that our timing was lucky, and that we just managed to squish ourselves in to see it, before it closes on Saturday.
The Man in the White Suit is based on the film of the same name, a 1951 Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guinness. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, the British Film Institute named it the 58th greatest British film of all time. Naturally, I haven’t seen it. But I can absolutely imagine how this comic scifi tale, about an inventor who creates a fabric that neither stains nor wears out, could really have brought a sense of ludicrous hilarity to the post-war gloom. Of course, the final twist is that the fabric does deteriorate after all, and pretty rapidly too. This whole construct was not new; I remember seeing Leonard Rossiter in Feydeau’s The Purging, as part of The Frontiers of Farce at the Old Vic in 1976, where he played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots. They broke – to hilarious consequences.
The Man in the White Suit film appealed to the working-class/trade union themes of 1950s comedy, the I’m All Right Jack generation that poked fun at both the Trotskyite union leaders and the toff company owners alike. Today, we have a different range of political strife to contend with; but there’s still a great divide between the haves and the have nots. There’ll always be a difference between the Brendas of this world, all hard-working labour and protecting workers’ rights, and the Birnleys, who pompously proclaim their exploitative achievements by dint of inheritance. And in the middle, there’s the little man whose talent pulls him out of the great working masses but never brings him to the height of management; exposing him in limbo with nowhere to go. Whilst I can see the relevance of TMITWS’s story to today, its attempts to accentuate the modern relevance feel rather clunky. Some of those knowing but oblique modern references might have been better left out, and let this tale stand simply as the period piece it is.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and the cast take on their task with brightness and enthusiasm, concentrating on the horseplay and plentiful slapstick moments. Director Sean Foley, who has a knack of creating amazingly successful work and amazingly disastrous work with equal measure, once more brings his eye for physical comedy, humorous effects and general lovability to his own adaptation of the original script. Michael Taylor’s set is incredibly versatile, not only cunningly creating a pub or restaurant scene together with the research laboratories, factory and the Birnleys’ stately residence, it also reveals pop out extra spaces, folding out of walls; for example, the superb 1950s sports car scene, and Daphne’s bedroom are surprising and delightful as they unfold.
Central to all this ludicrous mayhem is Stephen Mangan, who cuts a lovably foolish figure as Sidney Stratton, the inventor who nearly always mucks things up. Whether it’s his explosive laboratory experiments, or spilling drinks down his (or anyone else’s) lap, he always stands up for decency in the face of exploitation, and also wants the quality of everyone’s lives to be improved by scientific development and progress. He’s hard-working on stage, bumbling from one physical disaster to another, striving to talk his way out of a series of mess-ups; and it’s a very funny performance.
Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley with the plummiest of accents, most vividly reminding me of the cut glass tones of the young Mrs Thatcher, deliberately pinpointing both the posh and the patronising. Daphne’s a young woman who knows her own mind, and whilst Ms Tointon is feeding us a stereotype, she’s quite believable all the same. There’s also a fabulously funny performance from Richard Cordery as Birnley, all northern pomp and circumstance, blundering his way through the proceedings; the archetypal fat cat with an interest only in himself (and protecting the virtue of his daughter).
I’d been looking forward to seeing Sue Johnston on stage, as I’m a great admirer of her ability to perform understated comedy (The Royle Family) and intelligent drama (Waking the Dead), but her role as Stratton’s drudge landlady Mrs Watson is very uninspiring and she had precious little decent material to get her teeth into. Similarly, Richard Durden’s Sir John is a pantomime villain who steps in to ensure the mill-owners scoop off the highest amount of cash from any deal. I did enjoy the musical spots from Matthew Durkan as Jimmy Rigton, together with his band as played by Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, creating a suitable musical accompaniment to the plot. This doesn’t quite make it a musical as such, but just lends some period character, much as the skiffle group do in One Man Two Guvnors.
It’s a fun show; but it is enormously silly. At the interval, I couldn’t decide whether it was awfully brilliant, or brilliantly awful – somewhere between the two, I guess, lies the truth. I doubt whether this production will see the light of day again, but don’t go away with the feeling that it’s an out and out failure – far from it. Above all, the feeling that you take away is that you’re watching a live action cartoon, featuring broad brush characters with stereotypical characteristics working hard for your laughter. There’s no slipping on a banana skin sequence but if there had been, it would have been wholly in keeping with everything else. I’m glad I saw it.
P. S. A theatrical first for me, in that after curtain down the audience was required to participate in a planned evacuation practice. Relatively easy for us, as we were near the end of a row right by some doors leading out into the safety of the open air. Interesting to hear all the emergency alarms though, and to see the ushers and bar staff all manning the doors and directing people to safety. Good that they do it – I’m just surprised that this is the first time in over fifty years of theatregoing that I’ve experienced such a thing!
Sometimes it’s easy to talk about a film or a play without giving away too many spoilers. However, in the case of The Good Liar, it’s virtually impossible. Roy and Betty meet over dinner, having been chatting on a dating website; he seems in frail health so, a few nights later, Betty allows him to stay over in her house rather than walking all the way up the stairs to his own apartment. But, actually,he’s in perfect health and appears to be part of a gang – or at least a partnership – of swindlers, defrauding greedy but stupid investors of their hard earned cash. OK – that’s not too much of an opening spoiler.
There is, however, a basic twist to the story – and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a thriller if there wasn’t, so that in itself isn’t a spoiler. However, if you have any inkling of this twist in advance, it will completely ruin it for you. So, if you want a quick spoiler-free review, all I’ll say is that it’s enjoyable, well-performed, although with some unnecessary gore and unexpectedly bad language from Sir Ian, and, frankly, in some respects rather an unpleasant film. If you like the sound of a dramatic pairing between Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, then you’ll love it. And who wouldn’t fancy that? Now, if you want no more spoilers, bookmark this page, go and see the film and then come back. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with dissecting it….
… I think they’ve gone. Phew! Now I can tell you what I really think. SPOILER ALERT!!! (Just in case) The strength and weakness of this film is in the casting. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are a powerful combo, and there are many exciting, tense, witty and dramatic scenes between the two. But do you really think an actor like Dame Helen would have taken a role as an elderly woman defrauded of her assets, made to look stupid and weak? Naaaa. Now, if it had been Dame Judi, she might have built up an emotional image of noble fragility and crumbled beautifully in front of us all as a downtrodden old dear. But this is Dame Helen. From the Janis Joplin-like Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles to D.I. Jane Tennison and many roles before or after, she’s always the spunky, spiky, unpredictable, gritty strong woman. And if anyone’s going to outsmart Sir Ian’s Roy, it’s her Betty. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought right from the start of the film that her character has her own agenda.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and that’s proved without a doubt in this finely-detailed plot to put right a wrong over half a century old. No wonder it’s set in 2009; if it had been set in 2019, the past would probably be too distant for them to do anything about it. When you discover the elaborateness of the pre-planning, before the substance of the film gets underway, you feel both wow, that’s clever and wow, that’s far-fetched in about 50-50 measure. Nevertheless, the film does weave an enjoyably intricate web of deceit that is entertaining to observe, and, despite the occasional horror and gore, there is something delightfully British afternoon-tea about the whole thing. At times it feels like an episode of Midsomer Murders as directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Sir Ian and Dame Helen dominate the film throughout, and with acting of their quality, that’s no surprise. A very small cast adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Personally, I find it hard to watch Jim Carter and not see Mr Carson from Downton Abbey; here he plays Roy’s partner-in-crime Vincent, like a spiv Mr Carson, hair bouffoned up and with a constant eye for a cash deal. Russell Tovey plays Russell Tovey playing Stephen, Betty’s grandson, a suspicious lad with an unexpected grasp of Nazi history, who spends most of the film acting as Roy’s chauffeur with bad grace. There’s a nice performance from Mark Lewis Jones as Bryn, the hapless investor who bumbles his way through a deal and is sacrificed for his pains. But there’s no doubt the film belongs to its two big stars.
Mrs Chrisparkle was finding it a very unhappy film until the twist started to reveal itself; clearly she was empathising with Betty just a wee bit too much, and it’s just a bit too unimaginative to base a plot on a ruthless old git manipulating an innocent old girl. But Dame Helen isn’t an innocent old girl, never has been, never will be. Very watchable and enjoyable, a couple of moments when my dislike of violence made my stomach retch slightly, and an ending where one plot to deceive fails catastrophically and another plot succeeds miraculously. Recommended, but primarily for the acting.
In which Lettie Blacklock discovers that a murder has been announced in the classified ads of the local paper, and it would take place at her house on Friday October 29th. Unsurprisingly all the local gossips drop in to see what will happen… and a murder does indeed take place! The local police are mystified but fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance, and the culprit is caught red-handed attempting another murder. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to Ralph and Anne Newman at whose house I first tasted “Delicious Death!” This may have been the Ralph Newman whose family owned the gardens at Blackpool Sands in South Devon, but I can’t prove it. No matter, Delicious Death was obviously the name they gave to their homemade chocolate cake. A Murder is Announced was first published in the UK in an abridged version in eleven instalments in the Daily Express in February and March 1950. In the US, it was first published in forty-nine short parts in the Chicago Tribune from April to June 1950. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, both in June 1950.
Here’s an enormously entertaining book from the Christie canon. I remember absolutely devouring it when I first read it, because I couldn’t put it down and it was so completely engaging and arresting. The whole idea of advertising in the local newspaper that a murder is going to take place is so bizarre but strangely thrilling – as indeed the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn prove as they all troop round to Lettie Blacklock’s house to see what happens. Even reading it this time, I was so intent at finishing the book because I wanted to check that my suspicions were correct (they were) that I had to re-read the last few chapters the day after, when I was less tired, so I could concentrate on the finer details. From the light-hearted first few moments, to the, frankly, hilarious farce of the first murder, and then right through to the final denoument this is a book that keeps you on your toes and never stops exhilarating you.
The book reunites us with Miss Marple, whom we hadn’t encountered for seven years – her previous appearance was in 1943’s The Moving Finger. There may be a slight sense that she’s aged further; “she was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.” All that wool and lace makes you think of Whistler’s Mother. Julia is partly right when she describes her as “the prying kind. And a mind like a sink, I should think. Real Victorian type.” Miss Marple certainly knows how to pry, but a mind like a sink? Surely not.
We also meet Inspector Craddock. Chief Constable Rydesdale thinks highly of Craddock, “he not only had brains and imagination, he had also […] the self-discipline to go slow, to check and examine each fact, and to keep an open mind until the very end of the case.” This “open mind” doesn’t seem to come naturally to Craddock; but what impresses me about him is his ability to recognise his own faults, his own prejudices. Whilst discussing Miss Blacklock’s domestic assistant, the wild-talking enigmatic Mitzi, Craddock confesses to Rydesdale, “I think the foreign girl knows more than she lets on. But that may be just prejudice on my part”. Miss Blacklock also believes that Craddock is prejudiced against Mitzi: “the whole idea’s absurd. I believe you police have an anti-foreigner complex.”
She’s right to suspect his clarity of thinking on this issue. Not only does he appear to be prejudiced against Mitzi, he’s prejudiced in favour of Philippa, because she shows class: “he was a little shaken in his suspicions of Mitzi. Her story about Philippa Haymes had been told with great conviction. Mitzi might be a liar (he thought she was) but fancied there might be some substratum of truth in this particular tale. He resolved to speak to Philippa on the subject. She had seemed to him when he questioned her a quiet, well-bred young woman. He had no suspicion of her.” Craddock would return in 4.50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and was written in to the four Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple comedy film thrillers that were produced from 1961 – 1964.
It’s a crisp, plot-driven, fast-moving story, that moves from gentle comedy to light thriller, moments of farce (the first murder) to moments of sheer terror (the final murder). There’s even an element of Shakespearean comedy ending after the whodunit denouement is over! It has a rather silly and unnecessary epilogue, but that’s easily ignored. Character-wise, it’s interesting for the portrayal of what is obviously a lesbian couple, without the L word ever being mentioned, with the Misses Murgatroyd and Hinchliffe household. Christie gives a rather good account of them – I wonder if they were based on real people she knew. The only thing that very slightly lets it down for me is that Christie dollops a whopping great clue early on, if we care to notice it. I remember that it stared out at me instantly, the first time I read it; and, as a result, guessed the murderer even before a murder had taken place.
As usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The setting is the village of Chipping Cleghorn, in the county of Middleshire, with Little Worsdale nearby, not far from the town of Medenham Wells. All totally fictitious of course, although there are plenty of places that begin with Chipping… and Middleshire could well refer to Middlesex. Medenham Wells suggests Medmenham, just outside High Wycombe. Milchester is another nearby town; interestingly the name features in Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path, written in 1941. Coincidence, or was Christie influenced by Rattigan? The only other location to consider is the Hotel des Alpes, in Montreux, where Rudi Scherz is believed to have worked. This was indeed a real hotel and one with a fine reputation, active from 1855 to 1975.
There are many other references for us to consider. Let’s first look at all the newspapers that get delivered to the households of Chipping Cleghorn. The Times, the Daily Graphic, the Daily Worker, the Daily Telegraph, the News Chronicle, the Daily Mail and the North Benham News and Chipping Cleghorn Gazette. As you might guess, the latter is totally fictitious. However, the others are all real; the Times, Telegraph and Mail are all available today, whilst the Daily Graphic stopped publishing in 1932 – date-wise, that’s something a little off the mark for Christie there – the Daily Worker became the Morning Star in 1966, and the News Chronicle was published from 1930 to 1960, when it was absorbed into the Daily Mail.
Mrs Swettenham comments that a family member used to breed Manchester Terriers. I’d never heard of this breed. Whilst the Kennel Club lists it as an endangered breed, there were, apparently, an average of 164 births per year between 2010 and 2016. So the numbers are on the up. Bunch’s husband, the Rev Julian Harmon, is obsessed with the story of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes – which was completely lost on me. This seems to relate to a confusion over name translations; in any event, Ahasuerus was the King of Persia in the Book of Esther. I’m sure that’s all we need to know. Whilst we’re on the subject of funny names, the Harmons call their cat, Tiglath Pileser. He was a prominent king of Assyria in the eighth century BC, who introduced advanced civil, military, and political systems into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. So now you know.
Miss Blacklock is found reading Lane Norcott in the Daily Mail. Maurice Lane Norcott was a real journalist who wrote in the Daily Mail in the 1930s and 40s. Bunch’s favourite new book, “Death Does the Hat Trick”, is a spiffing title but totally fictitious, I’m sorry to say. “Where was Moses when the light went out”, Mrs Swettenham quotes her old Nannie when questioned by Craddock. “The answer, of course, was ‘In the Dark’”. This is an old American song from the latter part of the 19th century, written by Max Vernor. Some suggestions online are that the response should be “in the basement eating sauerkraut”. You decide.
Miss Marple tells Sir Henry Clithering that although her nephew’s wife paints still life pictures, she prefers the work of Blair Leighton and Alma Tadema. Edmund Blair Leighton was an English painter of historical genre scenes who died in 1922, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch painter who settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire.
“Inspector Craddock could never remember if it was St Martin’s or St Luke’s Summer, but he knew that it was very pleasant…” Either way, it’s what we today would call an Indian Summer. Edmund Swettenham quotes to Philippa, “Pekes in the high hall garden, when twilight was falling, Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil, they were crying and calling”. This refers to “Birds in the high hall garden” by Tennyson, from Maud – Edmund replaces Maud’s name with Philippa’s, the romantic old thing. “That old Tanqueray stuff”, so dismissively recollected by Bunch in conversation with Miss Marple, refers to The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Pinero, a late Victorian story about a “woman with a past”. And another quote: “Julia, pretty Juliar is peculiar” comes from Robert Slaney’s A Few Verses from Shropshire, published in 1846. Not surprising that no one would recognise it today.
The play that Edmund is to have produced is entitled Elephants Do Forget; it reminds us of the title of one Christie’s last books, Elephants Can Remember, published in 1972. And one slightly odd piece of misinformation; the first page of the book makes it clear that “today” is Friday, October 29th. However, October 29th in 1950 was a Sunday. It was in 1948 that October 29th was a Friday. Maybe that’s when she was writing it and never bothered to change it.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Murder is Announced:
Publication Details: 1950. Great Pan paperback, 3rd printing, published in 1959, price 2/6. The cover illustration by Keay shows a man checking the heartbeat of another man. I presume this is meant to represent Colonel Easterbrook checking Rudi Scherz for signs of life. However, the illustration of the dead man bears absolutely no similarity to his description in the book!
How many pages until the first death:23. However, with the classified advertisement being discussed from page one, we’re fully expecting and waiting for it.
Funny lines out of context: sadly, none in this book.
This book is full of resounding and fascinating characters. I really like Bunch; she has no unnecessary sophistication, no pretence, but she’s kind and honest and vital. “I get up at half past six and light the boiler and rush around like a steam engine and by eight it’s all done […] I like sleeping in a big cold room – it’s so cosy to snuggle down with just the tip of our nose telling you what it’s like up above […] whatever size of house you live in, you peel the same amount of potatoes and wash up the same amount of plates and all that”. She deliberately doesn’t kill a fly whilst talking to her Aunt Jane Marple, because she loves the feeling of being alive. A lovely positive character.
I also enjoy the portrayal of the Lesbian couple, Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. Hinchliffe wears corduroy slacks and battledress tunic, Murgatroyd a checked tweed skirt and a shapeless pullover. They call each other by their surname and have masculine hairstyles. Although these might be stereotypes, Christie couldn’t be clearer about her intention.
Mitzi is quite memorable; although I have to confess I find her a little irritating!
Christie the Poison expert:
Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison, an aspirin tablet being replaced by one laced with narcotics. In modern speak, we’d probably describe it today as an opioid.
Class/social issues of the time:
It’s 1950, and the after-effect of the Second World War lingers on. Mrs Swettenham, reading an advertisement for dachshunds for sale, says “I’ve never really cared for dachshunds myself – I don’t mean because they’re German, because we’ve got over all that…” I wonder if that’s truly the case. Fuel rationing continues, with the Blacklock household jokingly referring to “the precious coke” that fires the central heating; Lettie complains, “you know the Fuel Office won’t even let us have the little bit that’s due to us each week – not unless we can say definitely that we haven’t got any other means of cooking.” You used to have to get a licence from the Fuel Office in order to obtain coke. Julia reflects on how wonderful it must have been before the war when good quality coke was easily available, with no need to fill in forms. “There wasn’t any shortage? There was lots of it there?” “All kinds and qualities – and not all stones and slates like what we get nowadays”.
Food shortages also still linger; when Miss Blacklock gets Mitzi to create a Delicious Death cake for Miss Bunner’s birthday, she allows her to “use this tin of butter that was sent us from America. And some of the raisins we were keeping for Christmas”. A tin of butter? That in itself is mind-blowing today. Miss Blacklock supplies Mrs Swettenham with a supply of horse meat – our contemporary stomachs turn at this prospect. And there’s a bartering system in place to provide each other with clothing coupons: “people […] like a nice woollen dress or a winter coat that hasn’t seen too much wear and they pay for it with coupons instead of money” says Bunch. But to make up for it, households have started to acquire gramophone records. Julia thinks people are like records when they come round to the house and all say the same thing. Another after-effect of the war is the prevalence of young war widows, like Philippa. Mrs Lucas revels in treating her appallingly, giving her a smaller than usual salary, and patronising her wherever possible. And as a result Mrs Lucas can feel even more smug about her own life.
Whilst there’s still a general sense of class-based racism, it’s not as overwhelming as in some of her books. Miss Harris distrusts foreigners: “I’m always on my guard with foreigners anyway, They’e often got a way with them, but you never know, do you? Some of those Poles during the war! And even some of the Americans!” Craddock and Fletcher, his Sergeant, are both liable to mouth off about foreigners, which might make you question their ability to deliver impartial justice. “”Everyone seems to agree that this foreign girl tells whoppers,” said Fletcher. “It’s been my experience in dealing with aliens that lying comes more easy than truth telling.”” That’s some sweeping statement.
One additional subject that sets the story perfectly in its own age relates to the distrust and concern about the growing use of atomic energy. Mrs Swettenham is befuddled by the prospect. “I was just saying to Colonel Easterbrook that I thought it was really very dangerous to have an atom research station in England. It ought to be on some lonely island in case the radio activity gets loose.” An interesting line that shows both the worries and the lack of proper information or understanding about such a research station.
Classic denouement: No, but still fascinating and exciting. We witness someone just about to be murdered but the law interrupts just in time and prevents it – and then the murderer simply falls apart. All the ins and outs of the motives and methods follow on in a subsequent chapter. There’s also an epilogue, but I don’t think it serves much purpose.
Happy ending? I guess so. There’s a wedding, and an inheritance. But a lot of people have suffered quite a bit to get to that ending!
Did the story ring true? I fear this is one of Christie’s more far-fetched stories, with an elaborate plot design that achieves an end that could have been realised in a much simpler way. There’s also one extremely hokey and unlikely moment just before the full denouement, when Miss Marple impersonates someone who has already been murdered and the shock of it tricks the murderer into letting down their guard. Is it that likely that Miss Marple is a top class mimic? Naaaaa….
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enormously entertaining read but I think 9/10 is fair.
Thanks for reading my blog of A Murder is Announced and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is another of my favourite books, They Came to Baghdad, where high-spirited Victoria Jones has a very exciting adventure in the land of the Tigris. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
When I heard that the musical of Mary Poppins was to be revived with Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp in the main roles, I knew it was a no-brainer that I had to book – even if the show is perhaps not entirely suited for a gentleman on the wrong side of 55 (the very wrong side). But I thought the undoubted magnificence and spectacle of the production, combined with what was bound to be at least two fantastic performances, would outweigh any concerns I had for actually enjoying the show as such. Was I right? But first – isn’t the Prince Edward a delightful theatre? This was only my third ever visit, and the first time since I took the young Miss Duncansby (as she was at the time) on a date to see Chess there in 1986. Où sont les neiges d’antan?
There are a few finicky little ways that Mary Poppins musical varies from Mary Poppins the film, and if you’re a Poppins Purist, they might get under your skin a little. It annoys me that Let’s Go Fly A Kite appears far too early in the show, and I don’t particularly like the changed lyrics to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius – I know, I need to get a life. For most people under the age of [enter whatever you think is a reasonable age here] these quibbles are of absolutely no consequence at all. But if it interferes with your nostalgia, then it can be quite a challenge for the older audience member. The musical also makes Mary Poppins a little bit more mysterious, a little more supernatural. In the film you take the fact that Mary and Bert have known each other in the past, and will look forward to some point when they meet again in the future, rather at face value. In the show, however, it feels like they’re enigmatic overlords from a different time space continuum crossing each other’s paths like wayward comets.
As you would expect from a lavish Cameron Mackintosh production, Mary Poppins (the show, as well as the character) looks gorgeous. From the front cloth that overspills to the sides of the auditorium, showing all the night-time windows of London, to the dolls house frontage of Cherry Tree Lane that opens out into the main rooms of the Banks residence, Bob Crowley’s design is immaculate, stunning, and takes your breath away. Graham Hurman’s twelve-piece orchestra, rather conventionally housed in a pit in front of the stage, throw themselves into those magical Sherman Brothers melodies with very pleasing enthusiasm. George Stiles’ and Anthony Drewe’s additional songs dovetail nicely into the originals, especially Mary Poppins’ prim Practically Perfect and Miss Andrew’s sadistic Brimstone and Treacle.
In the lead role, Zizi Strallen gives a stellar performance; she looks the part, she sings perfectly, and she brings to life Mary Poppins’ magical qualities of appearing from nowhere, knowing what you’re thinking, indulging in fun but having absolute rules that must be obeyed, and so on. There’s some nice onstage magic (literally), as when she continually takes large items out of her carpet bag; and when her powers overcome Miss Andrew so that the latter consumes her own brimstone and treacle, it’s a highly satisfying moment! Ms Strallen is mesmerising in the role. It’s also a delight to see Charlie Stemp back in a musical, as Bert the Sweep, leading some spectacular dance numbers, including the famous “dancing around the proscenium arch” act, which still looks great. And, of course, a huge cheer for the wonderful Petula Clark, still performing at the age of [let’s not mention it] as the Bird Woman.
It’s slick, it’s powerful, it’s spot-on with all its technical prowess, and it looks and sounds magnificent. So why did I feel strangely disconnected to it? Am I really now too old to enjoy this kind of show? I deeply hope not. But for me it lacked an edge, a bite; an element of true magic. When Ms Strallen sang “all around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares….” the music didn’t emotionally swell and I didn’t get that lump in the throat I was expecting. And I know this is going to make me sound like a miserable old curmudgeon, but the child actors playing Jane and Michael were so incredibly efficient and accurate in their characterisations that they made them too unlikeable to get pleasure from their performances. Whilst I absolutely appreciated the strengths of the entire production, I was really shocked that it left me surprisingly cold. I’d been really looking forward to it, too! I disappoint myself!
I should add that there are some lovely supporting performances, for example Claire Moore is fantastic as the horrendous Miss Andrew, and I really enjoyed Amy Griffiths as the put-upon and unsure Mrs Banks. In any case, I’m sure this production is going to do great business for a long time to come, and if you’ve kids this is going to be a knock-out success for them. Don’t listen to a miserable git like me whose heart is obviously getting stonier by the day!