Laura Michelle Kelly
Few could have failed to notice the hype about Cameron Mackintosh’s much anticipated production of Mary Poppins – the publicity has been pretty inescapable – fortunately it more than lives up to expectations.
Returning to the original source material, the popular children’s novels by P.L Travers, Mackintosh brought in the Oscar winning screenwriter of Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes, to write the book. And together with director Richard Eyre they have created a production, which while eminently enjoyable also has a strong, compelling story with a relevant message about the importance of family.
Famously filmed by Disney, this well known tale of the nanny Mary Poppins who transforms the lives of the Banks family will still be a recognisable one to those only familiar with the movie. Where the stage version differs most notably is in the characters of the mother, played by Linzi Hateley, and the father, wonderfully portrayed by David Haig, who are both fleshed out to very strong effect. These two have pasts which haunt them and which have made them inadequate parents to their children, Jane and Michael, who are played by a variety of very talented child actors. But, of course, the real stars of this production are Laura Michelle Kelly as the eponymous nanny and Gavin Lee as Bert, the chimneysweep, who sing up a storm as well as displaying a strong on-stage chemistry.
As in the books (and the film) the main action takes place inside the Banks’ house, No.17 Cherry Tree Lane. The wonderfully designed set includes the whole downstairs of the house, with the attic and the nursery dropping down from above and some scenes even taking place on the roof. In a clever touch it resembles the large dollhouse visible in the children’s nursery. While intricate and frequently amazing, the set works because it astounds without overwhelming the action. In addition to its notable design, this production contains its fair share of visual surprises, most memorably a scene where the dancers take to the ceiling and fly over the rooftops to the obvious delight of the cheering audience.
This is unsurprisingly a very large-scale production. As the show features so many elaborate musical numbers, a lot depends on the chorus and the dancers, and they don’t disappoint. This is especially true of the dancers, faced with the complex and intricate choreography of Mathew Bourne; the production is peppered with a variety of styles from classical ballet to tap, and the dancers tackle them with high energy and obvious, infectious enjoyment.
Many members of the audience were obvious devotees of the original Disney film with Julie Andrews and it is a mark of the excellent performance by Laura Michelle Kelly and the subtle introduction of new songs (‘Being Mrs Banks’, ‘Anything Can Happen’ and ‘Brimstone and Treacle’) that they seemed more than satisfied. These new numbers, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, fit seamlessly into the original Sherman brothers score and help to further round out the characters of the two parents. However, the real masterstroke here is the introduction of the character of Mary Poppins using another new song, ‘Practically Perfect’, rapidly banishing any memory of Julie Andrews from the audience’s mind.
While maintaining many of the original songs from the Disney film – ‘Step in Time, ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ – this production, as has been noted in the press, is a much darker prospect and is also quite long, coming in at three hours including the interval, and as a result is not overly suitable for very young children.