Review - Mary Poppins starring Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp at the Prince Edward Theatre
Mary Poppins, the eponymous airborne professional nanny of the PL Travers stories and the 1964 live-action Disney feature, has flown back into the West End, to the original home - the Prince Edward Theatre where this frequently stunning stage version first took flight back in 2004. And just as Mary Poppins is on a magnificent mission to heal a divided family, so the show has returned at exactly the moment it is most needed, to heal a divided nation as we hurtle into yet another divisive election.
But for nearly three hours, at least, you can park some of those worries at the door, and simply bask in the gentle familiarity and delightful uplift of this story and the spit-spot production it has been given (to quote a phrase that Mary Poppins applies to herself). She also repeatedly tells us, in a mellifluous new song that George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have embellished the original film score of the Sherman Brothers with, "I'm practically perfect, in every way." As played by the delightful Zizi Strallen, you take her at her word: it may be as much a threat as a promise, but she's also as mischievous as she is magnificent. Strallen, who inherits a role that her older sister Scarlett once also played on this same stage, has previously played it in a UK tour, and now owns it with complete poise and assurance.
The original West End production ran for just three years, though its subsequent transfer to Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre in 2006 ran twice as long. It always struck me as odd that it was never quite the monster hit it feels like it is; perhaps its luxurious return now will finally lend it the classic status it deserves.
Reuniting the original creative team of co-directors Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne, with co-choreography by Bourne and Stephen Mear, it is staged with spectacular assurance - a family show about a family that's as full of charm as it is full of spectacle and stand-out numbers. It has also been given a truly splendid cast throughout the ranks, with the luxury casting of veteran pop and stage star Petula Clark (who turns 87 on Friday) as Bird Woman, and West End regular Claire Moore as the formidable Miss Andrew, who provides an entirely different model of nannying.
Besides Strallen, the other stand-out, of course, is Charlie Stemp as Mary's best friend Bert, the chimney sweep who has the show's most spectacular number "Step in Time", which calls for him to tap-dance his way around the entire proscenium arch, including upside down. Stemp, who first burst onto the London stage as a quirky leading man in Half a Sixpence (also produced by Cameron Mackintosh) and subsequently took over on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, has an effortless grace and ready charm that's captivating.
But then that's true of the entire production, from the bewitching pop-up toy theatre original set designs of Bob Crowley, now adapted by Ros Coombes and Matt Kinley, to enchanting performances from Adelaide Barham and Gabriel Payne as the Banks children Jane and Michael on the opening night, and lovely work from Joseph Millson and Amy Griffiths as their parents.
The evening may have an old-fashioned feeling of a well-crafted book musical of the old school (there are times when I wondered if it was a show that had come from the stable of Lionel Bart). But it delivers a timeless experience, with songs like the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "A Spoonful of Sugar", and of course "Supercalifragilsticexpialidocious" (thrillingly staged as a massive production number). And it also has a bang up-to-date message: family always needs to come before money.
Mary Poppins tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Johan Persson