Practically perfect in every way? Get Mary Poppins right and the reviews write themselves. We’re big Poppins fans here at The Family Stage so expectations were high when it came to the stage show. The Julie Andrews film is a firm favourite of Mummy and Mrs Mummy (and Auntie Poppins, of course). It’s one of the first films we watched with the munchkins, and we have fond memories (and hilarious video footage) of them singing along to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in the car just a couple of weeks after they first moved in with us. We also loved Mary Poppins Returns, which is a perfect blend of the new and the nostalgic. So did we think the same of the stage show?
It’s safe to say that the munchkins loved it. It’s a big, bright spectacle which is full of dance numbers and more than a sprinkle of magic. And we had what we reckon are the best seats in the house for the most magical moment of all. [Spoiler Alert – Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know!] Mary flies over the audience at the end, going out into the stalls before disappearing up into the Grand Circle slip box. Having been pleasantly surprised by the Dress Circle slip box when we saw Aladdin last year, we decided to go for the same seats again. Not only do these 4 private(ish) seats feel quite special, they’re also reasonably priced and give a perfect vantage point for this scene. We are usually total stalls snobs, but we would definitely go for these every time at the Prince Edward Theatre.
But back to the show. Mummy has been mulling this one over in her mind for a while now, unsure of exactly what she thinks of it. It’s (quite intentionally) not a carbon copy of the film, not least because this was the only way that Cameron Mackintosh could acquire the rights from P.L. Travers (who was famously unimpressed with the twee Disney adaptation of her works). The stage show consequently stays truer to the original source material, albeit with the inclusion of most of the best known songs from the film. And, it’s the original songs that provide the most crowd-pleasing moments (although new number ‘Practically Perfect’ from legendary West End writing team Stiles and Drewe is a real earworm). Fans of the film may well be disappointed if they are expecting carousel horses and cartoon penguins, as the scenes in the park are done rather differently. ‘Jolly Holiday‘ sees statutes coming to life on stage while a sweet shop becomes the setting for ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious‘. (Mummy was fine with all of the above, although did struggle to get on board with the entirely new lyrics to the latter.)
Like the novels, the stage show is much darker in tone. Jane and Michael Banks are more obnoxious than their on-screen predecessors. Their parents are even less cuddly, particularly Winifred Banks (Amy Griffiths), who is not gifted the redeeming feature of being distracted by women’s suffrage to explain her hands-off approach with the children. (Again, Travers was not a fan of this part of the film plot, having intentionally written Banks as a woman of limited substance.) Instead, she becomes an ex-actress, struggling to retain her own identity post-marriage and children. Meanwhile George Banks (Joseph Millson) has clearly been traumatised by his childhood experiences with nasty Nanny, Miss Andrew (Claire Moore). So it’s up to Mary Poppins (Zizi Strallen) to help the family find the right balance between fun and discipline, with a little help from friend, Bert (Charlie Stemp).
Between Strallen’s sublime singing and Stemp’s dizzying dancing, it’s easy to see why the pair were cast in these roles, although it’s harder to connect with the characters than it is with their counterparts in either film. In part, this appears to be a character choice, with Strallen’s portrayal intentionally colder than the inimitable Andrews (although so is Emily Blunt’s). But it’s also a feature of the frenetic nature of the stage show, which crams in an awful lot as it tries to piece together the best bits of the books and the film. Consequently it doesn’t dwell much on the relationships between Mary, Bert and the children as it could. Instead, it bounces between the big numbers that everyone expects and slower, sometimes sinister scenes (including a quite scary moment when the children’s toys come to life and a rather less saccharine ‘Spoonful of Sugar‘, where we see Mary seemingly self-medicating as well as dosing up the kids to keep them quiet).
The most moving moment comes from the legendary Petula Clark with ‘Feed the Birds‘. Here we see Mary trying to teach the children the value of empathy and human connection, and this is where Mummy thinks she has a slight issue with this particular Poppins. By playing it distant, there is a bit of a disconnect in the messaging, as Poppins doesn’t practise what she preaches. This is not helped by the removal of the tender moments that you get in the film in the bedtime scenes, particularly with the removal of the reverse-psychology lullaby ‘Stay Awake‘.
Although some iconic moments may be missing, there is still nostalgia aplenty, particularly in the scenes set within the walls of 17 Cherry Tree Lane (a giant dollhouse which opens up to reveal the Banks’ living room, kitchen and nursery). Here we see Mary producing increasingly large items from an apparently empty carpet bag and, although we are made to wait until the second Act, she does eventually make appropriate use of the bannister on the stairs that lead to the nursery!
Things generally pick up in Act 2. As ever, Mummy feels that tap dancing has something to do with this (and is now highly amused at her own accidental tap-dancing pun). ‘Step in Time’ is spectacular and features a special toe-tapping treat from Stemp that almost makes up for the lack of a tea party on the ceiling. A lot of the Act 2 songs are reprises too, which helps it feel more familiar and less frenzied than Act 1. Also, did Mummy mention the tap dancing?
All in all, Mary Poppins is a crowd-pleasing spectacular with moments of absolute magic. It may not quite live up to the lofty heights of the film, but that didn’t stop us coming out uplifted (and with bags full of Mary merchandise which probably cost about the same as the tickets!)
RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).
Mary Poppins is booking until 26 July 2020 at the Prince Edward Theatre.