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A CurtainUpLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
I didn't expect the new musical of Mary Poppins to be quite so good as it is. I suppose I might have dismissed it as another musical tapping into the children's market a la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which I dutifully went to see as a theatre critic rather than out of choice. Wrong, wrong! This production of Mary Poppins which Cameron Mackintosh tells us in the programme has been twenty five years in the planning is as crisp and quirky and delightful as its eponymous heroine. Of course its pedigree is practically perfect: Richard Eyre, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre directing. Co-directing and choreographing, and I think with a hand in the design, is Matthew Bourne, darling of the dance, stylish choreographer with a charmed life whose ballets have spellbound the most obdurate of anti-dance patrons.
Actor turned writer, Julian Fellowes has updated the story concentrating on the dysfunction of the Banks family incorporating more of PL Travers' book material than in the Disney film. Mr Banks (David Haig) is a banker with a penchant for figures but with no emotional intelligence with which to nurture his wife Winifred (Linzi Hateley) nor their two children, Jane (Nicola Bowman, Carrie Fletcher, Poppy Lee Friar, Charlotte Spencer, Faye Spittlehouse) and Michael (Jake Caterall, Perry Millward, Harry Stott, Ben Watton). Instead he is critical and a real wet blanket; his behaviour to his wife verges on bullying. Only when we meet his old nanny, Miss Andrew (Rosemary Ashe), who arrives with bottled supplies of Brimstone and Treacle, do we understand why. Mary Poppins (Laura Michelle Kelly) suddenly appears in response to an advertisement that the children want to place for a new Nanny. She instantly understands the needs of the whole family and sets about instilling a benevolent order.
Mary Poppins is set in an Edwardian London, a London of contrasts, of class division, where coal is used for heating and chimney sweeps are part of that underclass fuelling society. Mary Poppins takes a pair of bored children and teaches them to enjoy the parks of London, the street markets culminating in the joyous "Step in Time" tap dancing number where all the chimney sweeps dance silhouetted on the smoky rooftops of the city. "Feed the Birds" is a soulful, pretty song sung by an old, poor woman (Julia Sutton) to contrast with the moneymaking business of the City.
The Banks' house is designed with an eye for detail, sliding to reveal a large ground floor with open staircase, a spacious well equipped kitchen and the children's nursery in the attic where Mary Poppins opens her carpet bag and brings out everything from a bedspread with bed to a hat stand and full length mirror. The main set is like a dolls' house, fussy and Victorian fully stuffed. The sets are real, not computer generated images and all the better for it. In the park when the statues magically come to life I could see Matthew Bourne's influence, their stone encrusted costumes overhung with ivy. The park set starts with massive green grey trunks of trees but as the statues come to life there is a lighting shift with things getting brighter and brighter as the children learn to appreciate their environment.
In the black and white bank set where Mr Banks works, the clerks are drawn on the pillars as Dickensian-like, they sit on high stools and scratch away with quill pens. The sweetie stall which is the setting for the big hit "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is colourful, gorgeous and extravagant reminding me of Bourne's Nutcracker. A new song, "Temper, Temper" in the nursery has the sinister Edwardian dolls coming to life brimming with resentment in their calico stuffed costumes led by the delightful Valentine (Nathan Taylor) and recalling Shockheaded Peter.
It will of course take time for the new songs from the British writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, responsible for the award winning Honk!, to be as well known as the firm film favourites, "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "A Spoonful of Sugar" and " Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" but "Practically Perfect" is one which we all came out humming on the night.
Laura Michelle Kelly is a treat. She has this wonderful presence, totally in control but with a quietly amused smile. Her first words to Michael as he stands there open-mouthed, like the audience wondering how Mary Poppins appeared onstage, "Shut your mouth. We are not a cod fish, Michael.". She is mysterious and enigmatic, gentle and fair, witty and everyone's favourite. Her costume changes are like her, colourful but keeping to the same shape, the Edwardian frock coat reinventing itself in red and blue and purple with the same straw hat with parrot handled umbrella. David Haig agonises as the distressed Mr Banks, he has a capacity for woeful speeches and a dejected air but we still warm to him. Gavin Lee is in fine voice as Bert, the chirpy Cockney support. There is comedy from Robertson Ay (Gerard Carey) the accident prone boot boy and Mrs Brill (Jenny Galloway) the grumpy cook-housekeeper. They are a strong ensemble cast with thoroughly professional performances throughout and the children are very good indeed. Eyre can be justifiably proud at some splendid casting. In the final few moments, true to the London Peter Pan tradition, Mary Poppins flies up to the circle and disappears as mysteriously as she appeared. I think this Mary Poppins will be reappearing on the London stage for some time.
Premium Tickets to
Mary Poppins on Broadway
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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