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!
Production photos by Johan Persson