Review – Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre, 30th November 2019

78301642_2527791120603364_8509818595637723136_nWhen 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?

Banks familyThere 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.

CompanyAs 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.

Step in TimeIn 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.

IPetula Clarkt’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!

Mary and the ChildrenI 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!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – An Evening with Petula Clark, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2013

An evening with Petula ClarkIt was over a year ago, whilst we were on holiday in Malta, that the Royal and Derngate announced that they would be hosting An Evening with Petula Clark. I’ve never been what you would call a massive fan, but I am fond of many of her 1960s hits, and she is indeed “A Big Name”, and one that I would never thought I would get the chance to see in person. I guessed the show would sell out rapidly, so I asked a kind soul back in the UK to get some tickets for me; and I’m very pleased I did.

Before we saw the show, I read a review from earlier in the tour which implied that her voice had declined disappointingly, so I was expecting the worst. There are few things more cringey than someone who used to “have it”, still trying to trot it out despite the fact they lost it ages ago. Well, have no fear. Whatever “it” is, Petula Clark still has it in droves.

Petula Clark 2013Backed by a terrific five piece band, Miss Clark gives us two and a quarter hours of old hits, new songs and some brilliant covers. She starts off with a couple of songs I’d not heard before – from the new album I guess, but early on she treats us to great renditions of “Don’t sleep in the subway” and “Colour my world”, before going on to some enjoyable recollections of appearing in Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. She then said she would do a song from that show, and I was half-delighted and half-alarmed at the prospect, as “How are things in Glocca Morra” inevitably brings a lump to my throat, for it brings back happy/sad childhood memories and I can be a soft old thing on occasions. Anyway, thank goodness it was “Look to the rainbow”, which she sang in her quaint Hollywood Irish accent to an updated rhythm and was excellent. Then, blow me, she only went and did “Glocca Morra” too. Well yes, my eyes did well up, but it was worth it, because again she re-invented that sentimental old song in really quite a funky way. Other great numbers in the first half were a very beautiful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a multi-lingual “This is my song”, a Nashville style “My love” (which again really made you appreciate an old favourite in a new way) and a bright and breezy “You’re the one”. Those last two songs being my favourites, I went into the interval well pleased. The interval was actually a good opportunity to reflect with Mrs Chrisparkle just how much more we were enjoying the evening than we had expected.

Petula ClarkIn the second half, other early highlights were a new (to me at any rate) song about Memphis, a stunning cover, accompanying herself on the piano, of Elvis’ Love Me Tender (together with a very amusing anecdote about her meeting Elvis) and a thumping “I Know a Place”. I didn’t know that she had played Norma Desmond in Sunset (Goddam) Boulevard for two years, and she sang “With one look” from that show, which made me think she was probably sensational in the role. She did a pastiche 60s recollection number which evolved into “The Other Man’s Grass” which I amused myself by singing along to, as I remember my parents always hated it. There was a lovely change of mood with “Someone to watch over me” from the Gershwin Brothers’ Oh Kay (the Gertrude Lawrence recording was another one I remember from when I was dandled on my mother’s knee), again with Miss Clark on the piano. She has a great new song, “Cut copy me” which she performed and I was really impressed with both the song and the band’s arrangement – well worth downloading, I’d say. She got the audience to join in with her 1961 hit “Sailor” – that gives you an insight into the general demographic attending last night; then there was a rousing “I couldn’t live without your love”, a hugely crowd-pleasing “Downtown”, and finally a charming song about a rainbow of which I didn’t get the title; but if you’re a fan, you probably know it.

We came out of the show, feeling elated and privileged to have seen a great performer. There’s only a few more dates left in this tour, but absolutely well worth catching if you can.