Friday, 8 November 2019

 

Mary Poppins at The Prince Edward Theatre


Who doesn't know the story of Mary Poppins? The nanny who quite literally flies into the lives of the Banks' at Cherry Tree Lane, showing children and parents alike that all that truly matters is family (all while dancing on rooftops and with penguins)? The stage adaptation of the classic P.L. Travers stories has 'chim chim cher-eed' onto the London stage for the first time in 15 years, taking over from fellow Disney-alumni Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre.

The musical, with a script by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), is not a direct stage adaptation of the Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke film, instead it borrows from the original books adding characters, as well as new storylines for those we already know and love, new costumes and scenes (sadly without any penguins or carousels in sight), and a host of new songs by writing duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, Half a Sixpence).

Nostalgia for the 1964 movie aside, unfortunately the theatrical adaptation is a little too loud and long; panto season is clearly lingering in the not too distant future. With an unnecessary one-dimensional new villain and the characters acting over the top (especially Jane and Michael Banks during Act 1), the story has lost some of its more understated charm. Not to mention that Mary Poppins herself has a slight mean streak and does a little dance for laughs, none of which seem authentic to the character we all know and love.

Despite these unfortunate departures from the film's storyline, it's the phenomenal cast who make this version of our beloved nanny worth watching for its nearly three hours in length. Zizi Strallen has come a long way from when I first saw her in 80s jukebox musical Rock of Ages in 2012 (one of my theatrical guilty pleasures, not gonna lie) embodying Mary Poppins in looks and sounds with wonderfully strong vocals.

Other highlights are tender moments with the Bird Woman (Petula Clark), singing quiet renditions of Feed the Birds; comic duo Claire Machin and Jack North as the Banks' household staff; and Joseph Millson as Mr. Banks himself. He is probably the closest to the character in the film and his character development from someone who's only mission it is to work in the bank to earn money to a much more family-orientated man, is heartbreaking and beautiful – and his struggle with being "the man of the house" is still conveying an important message to breadwinners today.

The real star of this show, however, is not the titular character or any of the Banks family members. Charlie Stemp – who shot to fame in Half a Sixpence, first in Chichester and then in his West End debut – is the iconic Bert. Charming and funny, he carries the show with tap-dancing feet and a big heart. His show-stopping moment in Step in Time left the audience gaping with their mouths open. I won't spoil what happens to keep it a surprise for those who don't know the choreography, but be prepared to be amazed. This whole scene is phenomenal, and hands-down the highlight of the show.

Mary Poppins doesn't need a scary super villain or the additional songs that make the stage production so overly long. The delightful original music by the Sherman Brothers – from Let's Go Fly a Kite to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – are strong enough to carry the show. Had it stayed closer to the film adaptation, it would've been 'practically perfect' in every way. As it stands, the strong cast, impressing sets, and wave of nostalgia throughout will keep audiences engaged for the most part, but younger children might find it hard to stay entertained throughout.




Mary Poppins is currently playing at The Prince Edward Theatre until 3 May 2020. Book your tickets here.


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