Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – until 21 May 2016
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Chim chim charming: Practically perfect in every way, that’s Mary Poppins according to, well, Mary Poppins. She’s not wrong, though. The magical nanny really is rather wonderful.
And as for Cameron Mackintosh’s touring production of Mary Poppins, the show – at the Festival Theate until 21 May – it’s even better than that. Blown in by the wind to Edwardian London, Mary Poppins arrives to help the Banks family where children Jane and Michael are running amok, mother Winifred is ignored and purposeless and father George too wrapped up in his work to pay any attention to his family.
With good advice, a spoonful of sugar and more than a sprinkling of magic, she’ll help them find their way, assisted by Bert, the local chimney street/pavement painter/whatever he feels like that day.
All the old favourite songs are in this lavish production, from an enchanting Spoonful of Sugar to a singalong Supercalifragilsticexpialidocious which sees the cast not only sounding the letters but spelling them out with their bodies (they’re likely a whiz at the YMCA dance). Even better, when Mary says she’s saying it backwards, she’s actually is saying it backwards, none of your docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupus nonsense! That takes talent, and Zizi Strallen has it in spades.
From the moment she arrives in the familiar frock coat, memories of Julie Andrews go out the window. Or up the chimney. Yes, there are similarities because they’re playing the same character, but Strallen doesn’t go for the tried and tested intonations and song phrasing, she finds her own way, bringing a freshness to the part.
Strallen is a terrific dancer, but her physicality extends to knowing how to use stillness – when Mary Poppins is standing watching from the sidelines, there’s a quiet gravitas to the moment, you know it’s important. She’s also a sharp comic actress, able to get the audience laughing every single time she has Mary Poppins climb a staircase like a brolly-bearing Wilson, Keppel and Betty.
She plays most of her scenes with the young actors essaying Jane and Michael, who have loads more lines, dancing and sundry bits of business than their contemporaries in other shows. And the kids on press night simply aced it, not just delivering, but feeling their lines, as equal members of the ensemble rather than cute wee mascots. The roles are shared between six sets of ‘siblings’ but I expect the other Michaels and Janes are also rather good.
There’s only one actor playing Bert, Matt Lee, and he’s massively charismatic in the role, part-narrator, part conspirator in Mary Poppins’ bid to sort out the Banks. His best moments come in the Let’s Go Fly a Kite sequence, Jolly Holiday and Step in Time. The last of these is an astonishingly well-drilled song and dance number that starts small, gets bigger and winds up with a theatrical moment you won’t soon forget… and that’s not even the biggest surprise in the show.
There are also wonderful turns from Rebecca Lock and Milo Twomey as the elder Banks, while Wendy Ferguson’s Mrs Brill is a hilarious force of nature. Blair Anderson is a hoot as sissy servant Robertson Ay, Grainne Renihan a touching bird woman and as for Penelope Woodman as Miss Andrew, the Anti-Poppins, she is indeed a Holy Terror. Miss Andrew’s singing duel with the nicer nanny, Brimstone and Treacle vs A Spoonful of Sugar, is a thrilling moment of musical drama.
For lovers of dance or just basically semi-clad bodies, there’s fabulous work by Yves Adang as statue-come-to-life Neleus and his stony friends, part of an all-singing, all-dancing cast that light up every big number. The balletic choreography comes courtesy of Matthew Bourne – he’ll go far – and Stephen Mear, and it’s simply joyful.
Jolly Holiday – the ensemble. Photo: Johan Persson
Remember that old review about a show being so bad, you leave humming the scenery? Well, this show is a million miles from bad, but the scenery here is so darn good that it does actually deserve a star of its own – the Banks’ home in Cherry Tree Lane unfolds outwards onto the stage like a giant doll’s house and reappears in different forms according to the needs of the story.
It’s just one of the technical aspects of a show which runs ridiculously smoothly considering how much could go wrong, from smashed plates to broken bones. Mary’s magic, for example, comes courtesy of lighting effects by Natasha Katz, while the special effects were developed by Jim Steinmeyer, who’s worked with David Copperfield. See if you can figure out how he makes Willoughby the dog sit atop a glass carriage and chat away…
The Disney movie not being considerate enough to supply adequate songs for a two-hour-plus show, there are some new tunes by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Happily, Practically Perfect, Brimstone and Treacle, Anything Can Happen and the other original numbers sit nicely alongside the Sherman Brothers favourites in a show presented with flair by original director Richard Eyre and tour helmer James Powell.
They’re woven seamlessly into Julian Fellowes’ script, which mixes the Disney classic with PL Travers’ beloved books. The orchestra, headed by Ian Townsend and Steve Moss, delivers the score beautifully, even the most tin-eared of us will be singing away on the way out.
By the time the show gets to the sublime Anything Can Happen – one of the numbers added for the stage show – you’ll be grinning like a lunatic. Lessons have been learned, lives have been changed and it’s time for Mary Poppins, and you, to fly off into the night. But only one of you will get a standing ovation…
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000
Wednesday 27 April – Saturday 21 May 2016
Evenings, Tue to Sat: 7.30pm
Matinees, Thurs, Sat (& Wed 18 May): 2.30pm
Sundays: 2pm only.
Details and booking: www.edtheatres.com/marypoppins
Tour website: www.marypoppins.co.uk
Mary Poppins on Twitter: @marypoppins
Mary Poppins on Facebook: marypoppins
Mary Poppins on tour 2016:
27 April – 21 May
0131 529 6000
25 May – 19 June
The Mayflower Theatre
29 June – 30 July
01603 63 00 00
03 Aug – 03 Sept
08 Sept – 29 Oct
08448 11 21 21
02 Nov – 10 Dec
01274 432 000
14 Dec 2016 – 14 Jan 2017
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
Mary Popping arrives at number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Photo Johan Persson