SIR Cameron Mackintosh will hopefully be sleeping soundly in his Somerset bed this evening, after a sell out performance of the revival of his stage version of the famous Disney film, at the very beginning of what will probably be a record-breaking tour, if the energy, enthusiasm, talent and pure joy of tonight’s cast, band and crew are anything to go by.
Mary Poppins first came to the stage in 2004, starting at Bristol, and ending up in London’s Prince Edward Theatre, and finally on Broadway, and it one of the shows that includes the theatrical knight in its credits as co-creator, as it was his dynamism that completely transformed this tale into a fully-fledged musical, with a book by Julian Fellowes and many new songs by the British duo Stiles and Drewe, respecting the original books by Australian born Pamela L Travers far more closely than Walt Disney had done. Travers granted the rights to Mackintosh in 1993, three years before she died, so she was never able to see this magical combination of the stories from her books, the famous songs from the Disney film, and the enchanting and complementary new songs, but she should be extremely proud of how these talented artists, along with choreographer Matthew Bourne, designer Bob Crowley, and original director Richard Eyre, have curated her material.
Every part of this show is magical, and full of surprises, as simple sleight of hand, magic tricks, projection, lighting, quick changes, transformations, flying, of people and kites, gravity-defying dancing, and wonderfully graceful ballet, massive tap dance routines, beautiful ensemble singing, great comic timing, and such slick movement of people and set all combine to entertain for an almost unnoticeable three hours.
In the title role, Zizi Strallen is just annoying enough for being so perfect, with a strong, accurate singing voice, great stage presence, and a slick dancer too, as is Matt Lee, as Bert the chimney sweep, who has some great singing and some even more amazing dancing, on all sorts of surfaces, to keep moving the story along. It was great to see Rebecca Lock, so memorable in Martin Guerre in the late 1990s, eventually taking over the main female role from a French film actress not up to the rigours of life on the stage, as Mrs Banks, almost more like Julie Andrews than Ms Strallen’s Poppins, with a beautiful, lyrical voice and such a caring personality.
The children are played by five different teams, and if tonight’s duo were anything to judge by, they are as good as any other member of the cast; good actors, singers and dancers along with the rest of the ensemble. Mr Banks is a bit of a sad role, but he does get some dancing in, and Milo Twomey played the role with great honesty, especially his terror on meeting his old nanny. Two minor roles which really shone were the bird woman and Miss Andrew, played respectively by Grainne Renihan and Penelope Woodman, each with powerful voices and good character playing, showing their pedigree, both having appeared in major roles in musical theatre.
Every other member of the cast was as good in their enthusiasm and talent – the dancing was so full of energy, and so tight, the scenery just kept getting more exciting as it unfolded, dropped in or slid on, and there were some wonderful set pieces, such as slow motion movement in a park, reminiscent of a Seurat crowd, switching from monochrome to high Technicolor as giant flowers appear, a fantastic tap dance across and amongst the chimney pots, and some delightful pieces of projected animation, so that clouds on a backdrop moved slowly across the scene, birds flew, and a train went across a bridge. All of this wizardry and artistry added to the basics of a truly great story, performed well by every single cast member and played exquisitely by a tight band, with some delightful solo work, under MD Ian Townsend.
This is the third fantastic experience this year that I have to thank Sir Cameron for, after the definitive Sweeney Todd in the Pie Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, the Welsh Schools Edition of Les Miserables last week in Cardiff, and now this amazing revival, thoroughly entertaining throughout, for all ages, which I urge everyone to see.