Mark Ludmon reviews Mary Poppins with Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp at the Prince Edward Theatre in London
Prince Edward Theatre, London
As grey clouds, wind and rain descend on London, Mary Poppins is back to lift us up with a burst of colour, magic and joy. After 11 years, the stage musical has returned to the Prince Edward Theatre, with a new cast, to delight another generation of children as well as us grown-ups. As a child, I was bewitched by the 1964 film with Julie Andrews and read nearly all of PL Travers’s novels that inspired it. So, while the film and its 2018 sequel with Emily Blunt remain a guilty pleasure, I love how the Disney stage show presents characters and episodes from the books, adapted by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, rather than simply rehashing the film.
Fortunately, it does have most of the film’s songs by Richard M and Robert B Sherman, reworked into the new plot, seamlessly complemented by new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (whose own musicals include Soho Cinders currently playing at Charing Cross Theatre). Rather than being the intro for a journey into a cartoon world, “Jolly Holiday” sees a grey gloomy walk in the park transformed into blinding Technicolor, while “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” comes out of a trip to a literal “talking shop” to buy letters for conversation. This is presided over by Mrs Corry, a recurring character in the books but only a fleeting presence in the film – here, a West Indian woman and the only main character of colour in the show, played splendidly by Malinda Parris.
However, the overall story arc remains, seeing Mary Poppins unexpectedly alight in the household of George and Winifred Banks to look after their two naughty children, Jane and Michael – portrayed charmingly by Nuala Peberdy and Fred Wilcox on the night I saw it. Through a series of adventures, both parents and children learn the values of family and fun above work and making money for its own sake – a message that resonates in this age of hedge funds and neoliberal capitalism although not in a way that survives close inspection. As a mystical symbol of kindness and compassion, the legendary Petula Clark (who turns 87 today) repeatedly pops up as the Bird Woman asking for “tuppence a bag” to feed the birds – the moral heart of the show.
Alongside Hugh Vanstone and Natasha Katz’s lighting and Luke Halls’s projections, Bob Crowley’s stunning scenic and costume design takes its inspiration from the books’ illustrations, including a beautiful pop-up effect for the Banks’s home on Cherry Tree Lane. Thanks to Crowley and illusionists Paul Kieve and Jim Steinmeyer, the show is full of magic effects, not least the jaw-dropping sight of Mary Poppins pulling impossible things out of her bag.
After the saccharine charm of Julie Andrews, Zizi Strallen is a brisk, judgmental Mary Poppins but with a twinkle in her eye – certainly less sinister than PL Travers’s original creation. With her warm soprano voice, she is perfect for the role; in fact, “practically perfect”, as one of the newer songs puts it. With his charisma and acrobatic energy, Charlie Stemp shines brilliantly as Bert, the cheeky jack-of-all-trades who joins in their adventures, leading the show-stopping chimney-sweep routine on the rooftops of London for “Step in Time”. Bert has magic of his own and, in a meta-theatrical touch, conjures up scene changes to move the story along.
As part of a flawless cast, Joseph Millson is excellent as Mr Banks, evolving from an uptight businessman to a kite-flying family man, while Amy Griffiths gives a winning performance as Mrs Banks, torn between doing her traditional wifely duty and being true to herself. Veteran musical theatre star Claire Moore steals the show as the magnificently nasty nanny Miss Andrew, punishing naughty children with “brimstone and treacle” – Mary Poppins’s arch-nemesis in several of the books.
Despite its fragmentary plot, the production never flags under Richard Eyre’s direction, with spectacular choreography by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear, from the ambitious high-energy routines of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time” to more balletic sequences in the park. It may not be the story that many of us know from the film but this show delights and draws you in, with songs that prove irresistible for those who find themselves singing and clapping along.
Booking to 7 June 2020