Benet Catty Productions

Mary Poppins (Tour, 2016)

Mar 29, 2016

Bristol Hippodrome

The musical theatre has always relied on adaptations and where once novels were the most typical inspiration, films have become the go-to source for the non-jukebox musical adaptation. Often this seems to be less to do with the inspiration of the adaptors than the commercial appeal of the original.

Mary Poppins, though, is a hybrid - using songs from the famous 1964 Julie Andrews film but blending these with the substance of the original PL Travers books. The show remains the benchmark for how to adapt much-loved source material into a high-class stage musical.

It is a hybrid in other ways too. Not only does it feature many of the Sherman Brothers classics (Feed the Birds, Let's Go Fly A Kite, Jolly Holiday) but they are extended, adapted and supplemented by Anthony Drewe and George Stiles' new songs written in the same style. Few who are not expert on the film would be able to spot the join. Richard Eyre, who's directed many a great musical by himself, shares directing duties with Matthew Bourne, Britain's foremost choreographer (best known for his all-male Swan Lake) who in turn also shares choreography duties with Stephen Mear.

Now on a British tour (coming to Norwich in June), Poppins has run all over the world since it first opened in 2004, including a 6-year Broadway stay (double its run in London).This revival may be scaled back in several scenic elements from the original production but it remains full of eye-popping pleasures. The Banks' family home is now a dolls house which unfolds into its three dimensions, but Bert still dances around the proscenium arch and Mary's final flight remains a thing of wonder of the kind that could (and will) convert many a first time theatregoer to the wonders of live performance.

For all the hybridity, the story of Mary Poppins remains as it ever was. A magical nanny arrives via umbrella to look after Jane and Michael Banks, the adorable is mischievous children of George, a banker, and Winifred, a sometime suffragette. She teaches the children some life lessons with an officious charm and a no-nonsense sweetness. What she is really doing, as we come to appreciate but the family don't quite, is teaching the parents how to be good parents.

The big transformation of the piece is not of Mary nor of her kids, but of George - the curmudgeonly father who learns to love and care for his children by taking them to fly a kite. George learns that there is more to life than the money he tries to make for his bank. This realisation is made all the more pleasing for having been written, in this stage version, by Julian Fellowes, that tory of tories, who knows a thing or two about writing about class as his subsequent success writing Downton Abbey would demonstrate.

For all the mighty strengths of the writing and the production - a mixture of pleasures which put the shamefully flat-footed musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to shame - it is a shame to report that the present cast play it far more broadly than it's intended, or than it ever was in its original London run. Where once it was a grown up family musical with a pair of children at its centre, it is now played much more like a children's show, which has the unwelcome effect of making the book scenes feel flatter and less interesting than they should be. (Or at least this was the case when I caught the tour during its stay in Bristol.) Milo Twomey (George) is unmoving in the central role (originally played by David Haig) and even Zizi Strallen (Mary) fails to bring the gritty edge to the beaming smiles of the eponym but (as one would expect from any of the Strallen sisters) she sings up a storm. Matt Lee as Bert, who's played the role abroad too, gives much more bang for his buck, though, and Penelope Woodman does a hilarious star cameo as the villainous Miss Andrew, George's former nanny.

One of the real pleasures of Mary Poppins, not just for its setting but in its style, is that it is a very old fashioned family musical comedy, in the vain of My Fair Lady. It breaks no boundaries, it sits resolutely within the world of the popular musical. But it is so lovingly and carefully crafted, and so handsomely presented, that it feels completely fresh and relevant and in the business of making 1,500 people a night very happy.

In this and in most other respects, Mary - unlike the old lady who sings the most beautiful song to us several times - continues to be worth much more than tuppence a bag.

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