Charlie Stemp on 'Mary Poppins,' the pandemic, and a safe theatre reopening

Charlie Stemp has been on a roll ever since the shining-faced newcomer lit up the West End late in 2016 as the irrepressible lead in Half a Sixpence, playing a drapery shop assistant who inherits a fortune. Stemp's own good fortune found the performer heading to Broadway early in 2018 to take over the role of Barnaby in Hello, Dolly!, followed by a return to London that Christmas to appear in the Snow White pantomime at the London Palladium.

More recently, Stemp has been putting his terpsichorean skills to use in the time-honored role of Bert, in the reboot of Mary Poppins that was running happily at the Prince Edward Theatre until London theatreland went into its first lockdown last March. (The capital is now experiencing a second lockdown, which is due to end on December 2 but no one knows for sure.) So what better way to keep the experience of the West End alive than via the new cast recording of Poppins released Nov. 6, which in turn occasioned a lively chat by phone with a shooting star who turns 27 at the end of this month.

Worth noting, by the way, is that this interview took place 24 hours prior to England's ongoing second lockdown being confirmed.

How special is it for you have this new recording of Mary Poppins as a reminder of the show that was shut down due to the pandemic last spring?

I'm very excited about [the recording] and hope it provides that little bit of love that people might need at the moment to get them through the day. The album was recorded live across four performances over three days, which makes it feel a bit more special. I haven't listened to it yet myself and am jealous that you have [laughs]!

What are your memories of that fateful night [March 16] when the West End went dark?

We were waiting for the call to the stage and someone said, "Have you seen the Facebook feed for Cameron Mackintosh's theatres?" - that due to Covid we might have to shut down? As soon as we got downstairs we started to do half a warm-up and the dance captain said, "Let's not." We had been told the show wouldn't happen that night and needed to see where we would go from there.

What happened then?

We were all looking at each other realizing that we had to get ready not to be in our rooms for a while. My response was to take all the toilet paper from my dressing room which, as funny as that might sound and we did laugh about it, was serious, as well: we knew that no one was going to be in the theatre for some while and that the toilet paper couldn't be wasted. No one wanted to say that this might go on for months or years and we kept quite calm, which isn't easy when you're being told your job is finishing and you don't know when you might be coming back.

What has it meant for you to be cast as Bert?

People said to me, "you're very young to play this role," but I thought, well, it's about having the confidence. When I did Half a Sixpence, I was really raw and young, but to play Bert requires a maturity and a confidence and a mysteriousness, even, that comes with age: I like to think now that I'm a little bit wiser and better at my job.

It must have been fun on Broadway to be part of a Hello, Dolly! company that included a previous Bert in Tony-winner Gavin Creel.

Gavin is one of the nicest men I have ever met, and when I was offered the part [of Bert], he was, like, "Good, I'm glad Cameron realises that this is what should happen." Gavin was so unfathomably confident in the fact that I could do this role but at the same time he said, "I'm not going to tell you how to do it because you'll do it so differently." He loved the fact that the show taught him how to control an audience. He told me you just have to be yourself - turn on that charm and that smile and you're there.

Since Poppins closed, how have you been coping?

I cannot be the kind of person that sits and home does nothing, so I started doing online workshops and one thing led to another and I ended up doing them pretty much every week. I've started teaching, which I had never really thought about before but which has become a passion of mine, and I also was busy helping people who were vulnerable get through that time. There were seven us sharing a big house and we had a wonderful time: we would watch movies and drink far too much [laughs].

Has your mood changed as the pandemic has continued?

To say that I haven't had low days during this time would be a lie: I miss theatre and miss being able to do what I do. At the same time I've tried to use the time away to do other things like doing up my house in Lee, southeast London, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. And I feel so privileged to have a job to go back to, which has really helped me continue to find my passion.

What's your feeling about the government bailout for the arts, which far surpasses in England anything we have seen in the US?

We obviously want and need support and we need people to realize how valuable the theatre industry is and how much we bring to the economy. But at the same time, from a health point of view we have to make sure that everyone is safe and that our NHS is paid for and that people are fed. Our industry should reopen as soon as it is safely possible to do so, and I hope that together we can find a solution to keep everyone as happy and healthy as possible.

As we know, Mary Poppins will be back in time and before that, you've got an end-of-year show on immediate tap [assuming the current lockdown is lifted]: Pantoland at the Palladium, alongside a cast that includes Julian Clary, Beverley Knight, and Elaine Paige. [Performances of the seasonal pantomime are due to begin Dec. 12.]

Yes, and we'll just have to see how it goes. I have complete faith in Michael Harrison, the director who is also one of the producers. If there's anyone who can make something like this work, it's him: I would follow Michael anywhere. We're going to bring back so many different parts of the shows that people love so much that I don't think people will mind there isn't much story since there's not a lot of story to pantomimes anyway. We start rehearsals on my birthday [Nov. 30], and I just hope I'll get the biggest cake!

Photo credit: Charlie Stemp as Bert in Mary Poppins (Photo by Johan Persson)

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