Libby Purves is TheatreCat

‘A riot of good cheer & some quite breathtaking stagecraft’: MARY POPPINS – West End ★★★★★

In London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews, Ticket recommendations by Libby Purves

Prince Edward Theatre – until 7 June 2020
Guest reviewer: Ben Dowell

It has floated in on the chilly autumn breeze like a much-needed blast of summer sunshine. Yes, this Mary Poppins is as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as one can hope, a riot of good cheer, fun, excellent signing and some quite breathtaking stagecraft.

Most importantly, and I don’t think this is reflected upon often enough, the cast has a blast and it’s infectious. They smile and cheer through two and a half hours of this and it’s hard to resist.

Ironically, though, this production first seen in 2004, is a slightly darker experience than the film we all know. It’s based more heavily on the PL Travers stories and supplements the Richard and Robert Sherman songs from the Julie Andrews Disney film with new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

In some respects, it is an odd hybrid given Poppins author PL Travers’ reservations about the 1964 movie. Here many of the much-loved songs (‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, ‘Feed the Birds’, ’Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ and of course ‘Supercali’) are kept in, as the sunniness we know from many a rainy Saturday or Christmas watch; but this vies with the edginess of Travers’ original vision and one cannot help but wonder that Travers (who died in 1996) would have preferred an even gritter take.

Still, she’d probably be pleased with the opening salvos when we meet the Banks children (played with aplomb on the night I saw it by Nuala Peberdy and Edward Walton) who are terrifically unpleasant, overprivileged little brats, looking down on Bert the chimneysweep and the Bird lady who, fans of 1960s singing legends will be pleased to hear, is played by 86-year-old Petula Clark.

The kids’ mum, Mrs Banks, doesn’t engage in suffragette politics as she does in the film. She begins the action essentially yearning for a better marriage to someone who doesn’t have a broomstick up his backside and doesn’t sneer at her for once being an actress (a detail which enjoys a lot of knowing chuckles on stage).

And theatre’s terror too, not least mid-way through the first half when the children abuse their toys, and Poppins ticks them off rather magnificently and brings them to life, culminating in the rather nightmarish spectacle of a gigantic Mr Punch marionette looming over their playroom.

But this sense of compromise, of a tussle between shade and light, feels, to me, the key to the success of this production, played out in Bob Crowley’s doll’s house design, which fold and unfolds the magic and darkness of the story with consideration and care.

That, and a superb Mary in Zizi Strallen. She vocally on the money, but the success of her performance rests in her capacity to capture good cheer, sternness and otherworldly mystery of the part. She is quite simply dazzling in the role, moving with balletic grace (unsurprising, perhaps since the show is choregraphed by Matthew Bourne) and lighting up the stage whenever she appears.

I also loved Charlie Stemp as Bert, who enjoys the show’s best moment when he tap dances horizontally on the walls of the proscenium and then upside down on its arch. He’s dancing on air. As was I and my 8-year-old daughter.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.