“Mary Poppins” As London’s Unashamedly Old-Fashioned Christmas Spectacle

John Groves
15 November, 2019

Mary Poppins is an unashamedly old-fashioned “feel-good musical,” at times very pantomimic in style, at times almost a “nostalgic operetta” – so it’s ideal family Christmas-time entertainment for children of all ages, especially in Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish production at the Prince Edward Theatre, where it was first seen in 2004. And where it has now returned to for the holiday season.

Zizi Strallen, Charlie Stemp and company in "Mary Poppins," 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Zizi Strallen, Charlie Stemp and company in “Mary Poppins,” 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

There can be few who do not know the Sherman Brothers songs, most of which are heard in the first act, or who have never seen the Disney movie on which the stage show is based (or who have even read the books by P L Travers?).

This is a spectacular piece of theatre, due in no small part to the superb direction of Richard Eyre, but also, and especially, to the inventive and imaginative scenic and costume designs of Bob Crowley. Unlike most stage adaptations of films, this stage version is much more spectacular, especially with regard to the ‘magic’ effects and flying: I mustn’t say more or I shall need a ‘spoiler’ alert, but there are some real jaw-dropping moments when you think: how on earth do they do that!

Zizi Strallen performing "Step In Time" from "Mary Poppins," 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Zizi Strallen performing “Step In Time” from “Mary Poppins,” 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Much effort has clearly been made in casting the show. Zizi Strallen is the embodiment of Mary herself, appearing very relaxed in the role, yet with so much poise and elegance. She has that wonderful ability to be totally ‘still’ on stage, except when she is dancing and singing!

Charlie Stemp, who impressed in Chichester’s Half a Sixpence a few years ago, does so again as Bert, the chimney sweep. (What a Danilo in the Joseph CoyneLouis Treumann/Maurice Chevalier tradition he’s be!)

One of operetta history's first (and most famous) "wet dream leading men": Louis Treumann as Danilo, 1905.

One of operetta history’s first (and most famous) “wet dream leading men”: Louis Treumann as Danilo, 1905.

Stemp, and the rest of the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble, are given a ballet (Step in Time) in Act Two, with choreography by the resourceful Matthew Bourne which is the highlight of the performance – up to this point! Mr Stemp is ever ‘charming’ and has true connectivity with the audience, especially in the kite flying scene, which was even better than it should have been for going slightly wrong!

Charlie Stemp as Bert in "Mary Poppins," 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Charlie Stemp as Bert in “Mary Poppins,” 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Joseph Millson is the father figure/banker, George Banks, treading a fine line between a David Tomlinson impersonation in his acting and Rex Harrison in his singing. His wife and the children’s mother, Winifred Banks, is in the more than capable hands of Amy Griffiths, who is given a charming song, ‘Being Mrs Banks’ in Act Two, which she puts over with just the right pathos: one of the few romantic moments of the evening!

Fred Wilcox plays their son, Michael, at the performance under review, with a wicked sense of humour, especially facially, and an ability to project his dialogue and songs with clarity. Nuala Peberdy is his sister, Jane.

Petula Clark as The Bird Woman in "Mary Poppins," 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Petula Clark as The Bird Woman in “Mary Poppins,” 2019. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Among secondary roles, Petula Clark defies the ages in the role of The Bird Woman, Claire Moore is suitably horrible as Miss Andrew (her Brimstone and Treacle song is delightfully ‘awful’) and Ian Gareth-Jones impresses as the Policeman. In fact the whole acting/singing/dancing ensemble of 39 is superb, doing everything that is asked of them with panache.

Musically the show is very successful, with a live 12 piece orchestra in the pit that one could actually see, as well as MD Graham Hurman. The orchestrations(William David Brohn) are very imaginative – showing a lightness of touch that Robert Russell Bennett would have been proud of.

In short, if you want a totally “escapist” evening at the theatre, with or without children in tow, you can do no better than Mary Poppins!

Poster for Leo Fall's "The Dollar Princess," 1911.

Poster for Leo Fall’s “The Dollar Princess,” 1911.

And if you want to dream a little, then go see Stemp, Clark & Co. and imagine what they’d sound like in a new English language Dollarprinzessin recording or Merry Widow (if you must keep it “traditional”). It would be a revelation, for sure. And a great Christmas present too, for 2020. (To read about the latest ill-fated Dollarprinzessin on CD, click here for the review.)

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