NOTE: There have been cast changes since this review
Mary Poppins has finally opened at the Prince Edward Theatre and after all the pomp and excitement that has been generated around this much anticipated Disney and Cameron Macintosh stage version of Pamela Lyndon Travers inscrutable nanny, the show has generated exceptionally high expectations. Even before the curtain rises we are anticipating a stupendous Mary Poppins, who with the aid of a strong east wind will transport us into a magical realm where “Anything Can Happen” if you let it.
The musical is not a strict film to stage transfer, with the story having been cleverly adapted by Julian Fellowes from both the film persona of Mary Poppins and the one created in the books by Poppins’ author Ms Travers. The musical’s book is about a dysfunctional family based around Mr Banks, a man incapable of both giving and receiving love and affection as a result of being heavily dosed, as a child, on a foul concoction of cod-liver oil, brimstone and treacle by his tyrannical nanny, Miss Andrew. It is to this sad family with its two unruly children, Jane and Michael that Mary Poppins mysteriously arrives to dispense “A Spoonful of Sugar”, with which to sweeten family relations.
Bob Crowley’s stage design dramatically reveals different levels of the Banks family home, as the action moves from the ground to the lower and upper levels and finally to the rooftops.
The music is everything one expects, containing the well-loved melodies of the Sherman Brothers. Is there a child who exists who would not be delighted by the songs, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and of course that all time children’s classic, “A Spoonful of Sugar”. To aid the adaptation made to the story by Fellowes, some new musical scores were needed and these have been provided by the British composer-lyricist duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and not always to the show’s credit. Stiles and Drewe capture the same magical melodic simplicity of the Sherman Brother’s with the delightful tune ”Practically Perfect”, but not so with the remainder of their songs. The songs “Temper, Temper”, and ‘Brimstone and Treacle’, are ones I doubt any child will be humming after the show.
There are a few moments of magic, from Mary Poppins carpet bag, which like some incredible magicians top hat, she is able to pull out a hat stand, a full length mirror and even a bed - to the scenes where Mary Poppins is seen flying over the rooftops of London. However, there is nothing truly spectacular that has the children audibly gasping with amazement, as there is in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when the car magically takes flight.
There is one amazing dance routine in the song “Step in Time” which finally gives the show that spectacular moment demanded of a hit musical for children, and that is when the chimney Sweep Bert, literally dances 360 degrees along the walls and ceiling of the proscenium. There is also a more conventional ‘feet on the ground’, but equally entertaining dance routine in which the ensemble dance themselves into a spin as they perform actions to the tune of “Suppercalifrag….” at ever increasing speed.
Laura Michelle Kelly is a wonderful Mary Poppins, a delightful mixture of sternness and playfulness. When she sings that she is “Practically perfect in every way”, it is hard to disagree, as she creates an enigmatic endearing personality that is sure to find her Mary Poppins a place in every child’s heart. Gavin Lee equally shines as the cockney Bert, Mary Poppins similarly mysterious friend, who also has the remarkable habit of suddenly turning up when needed.
David Haig gives a superb performance as ‘George Banks’, who makes the transformational journey from emotional cripple to happy father, giving the production its dramatic edge. The children, whom I believe were played by Charlotte Spencer (12 years old) and Harry Stott (9 years old), were remarkable. As someone who usually finds children on stage a nightmare to be endured, I was pleasantly surprised by their performance. Another worthy mention is Jenny Galloway who creates a wonderful cameo role as Mrs Brill, the no nonsense and long-suffering cook.
There is no doubt that this is an exceptional and professional production and the musical Mary Poppins truly does fly, both literally and figuratively, yet it never quite reaches the highest heights of musical bliss.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I never thought in my wildest theatrical fantasies that Walt Disney's syrup mountain of a film...could be worked up into such a sharp, thoughtful stage musical." THE INDEPENDENT says, "With its magic and chutzpah, it simply blows away the opposition from rival West End musicals, emerging as the year's most joyous, spectacular and heart-tugging show in that genre." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "For much of the evening it is characterised by a mechanical professional efficiency rather than the quality of ecstasy we all look for in musicals." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Marvellously fresh adaptation.... Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious — or so I’d say." SHERIDAN MORLEY for THE DAILY EXPRESS says, "What Mackintosh and his director, Richard Eyre, have done is to restore the human dimension." QUENTIN LETTS for THE DAILY MAIL says, "This stage version has much much more punch than the adored old film version." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The stage version of Mary Poppins is heaps better than the movie - funnier, sharper, more inventive and with a far greater variety of mood