Mary Poppins. Practically Perfect?

5
I have a bit of a soft spot for the Disney film of Mary Poppins, so I have been looking forward with mixed anticipation and dread to the stage adaptation. When I saw it, it was only their fifth performance (still in preview) and I was sat on a bench seat
By Robert Iles
The new adaptation of Mary Poppins for the stage has taken Cameron Mackintosh some 25 to bring to the stage, longer even than the 20 years it took Disney to get the film going! What is it that has made these stories so seemingly hard to take on and yet has made these teams so persistent in their pursuit? The reason is partly that PL Travers was very protective of her stories and wanted to make sure they were handled sympathetically. Having been disappointed by the film she was reluctant to let the stage rights go but was eventually persuaded by Cameron Mackintosh that he could do the job. But even then, Cameron had to both assemble a team capable of undertaking the project and also wait until the time was right for the show to appear.

Cameron had managed to persuade Mrs Travers (as she liked to be known despite being unmarried) that there were many aspects of the original film that should be carried over, so he entered into a collaboration with Disney, personified in this case by Thomas Schumacher of their Theatrical Division.

But this is most assuredly not the film. Whilst a number of the Sherman brothers’ songs, often in new adaptations, appear in this show, and it has many visual echoes of the film, the storyline and feel owe much more to the original books. This is still a family show but there is more humour, more depth and a lot more story than the film ever attempted.

As an adult in the audience, you will be happy to see some old favourites but even happier that there is now a real story, some very funny lines and some wonderful theatrical moments. If you take young kids, they’ll love the spectacle, songs and magic but do expect them to climb on your knee for a cuddle once or twice as the blacker aspects of the original stories come through. The sugary niceness of the film is no longer there; the kids are unpleasant, and the wicked get their come-uppance.

Cameron has pulled together a family to produce this show, there is a real ensemble feel to the piece, it is not a showcase for a star or two just an honest to goodness good musical. The designs (Bob Crowley) are superb, both technically and visually, with enormous attention to detail that will mean I’ll be able to watch the show several times and still find new bits. Matthew Bourne’s choreography, aided by Stephen Mear, fills the stage in the big numbers (I think you might miss some of the great set pieces from the stalls, try to get a higher seat!) and there are some wonderful set pieces, in particular Supercalifrag .. well, you know what I mean.

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have produced some absolutely enchanting new songs and adaptations of the old favourites. I hear from that at least one cast member was convinced until recently that “Anything can happen” actually was in the movie. It is an enormous tribute to them that I’m already humming their tunes along with the originals and, in a year or two I may also forget which are which.

The children were fantastic, we saw Harry Stott and Charlotte Spencer in the roles of Michael and Jane. These are pivotal roles in the show, an enormous amount of the action, pace and story is entrusted to them and yet

Laura Michelle Kelly’s performance as Mary Poppins, from first appearance to final, magical, departure, is a true delight. On reflection, Mary Poppins actually doesn’t have a huge role (in the stage sense) in this musical; she is the catalyst and the force, often an observer on stage rather than a ‘star’.

David Haig’s Mr Banks worked perfectly for me with just the right mix of vulnerability, angst and delight. Winifred Bansk, struggling to meet his expectations and seemingly failing at every attempt was given real depth in a charming performance by Linzi Hateley.

But for me, the real revelation was the character of Bert, I finally see the crucial role this character plays in the stories. Played superbly by Gavin Lee with an energy and commitment that made this exhausting role look easy.

The cast as a whole were wonderful. There are actually too many really good moments in the show to individually name; the bank, the revenge of the toys (Valentine was excellent), Miss Andrew gets her come-uppance. I’d say that “A spoonful of Sugar” still looks a little pantomime slapstick rather than magic and some lessons in kite flying might not go amiss but other than that, no gripes, no shadows on a glorious evening.

Did I miss the Disney animation sequences, penguins, cod accents, film and cartoon effects of the movie? No, frankly I didn’t. The settings and dancing are more than a match for the film and when you see the magic on stage it is just so much more, well, magical! The film never made me want to read the books, this stage play has. PL Travers would be delighted. Thank you Cameron, and your team, for getting it spit-spot-on!

You may get the impression from this review that I was somewhat taken with this new show. You’re right! On just about every level from family show to a good night of theatre to a technical When it settles into its stride I will happily see it again, I reckon London is about to see a new long-term resident; practically perfect in every way.

Robert Iles


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