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Mary Poppins provides a spoonful of sugar to take away the taste of many a bad musical!



Review by David Munro

IT IS very difficult when sitting down to review Mary Poppins dispassionately not to burst into 'that song'.

Super this show certainly is, it is a long time (well at least since The Producers anyway) that I have left the theatre at the end of a musical with such a glow of enthusiasm and appreciation for what I had just seen.

To my mind, Cameron Mackintosh and his production team do not put a foot wrong. Of course, they had Julian Fellowes’ excellent book to work from and P.L. Travers’ original inspiration. but they really do a first rate job on them.

I have never read the Mary Poppins books and my sole knowledge of the aerial nanny and her charges is based on Mr Disney’s saccharine movie musical.

I therefore entered the Prince Edward with very mixed feelings. I knew Stiles and Drewe had reworked some of the Sherman Brothers original score and added a few new songs of their own.

This reassured me that the evening could not be all bad, as Stiles and Drewe are, to my way of thinking, the best thing to have hit the British musical since the 1950’s.

Mathew Bourne, I saw, had co-directed with Richard Eyre as well as doing the choreography - another plus - so I took my seat with slightly more expectation than I had left home with.

The moment the curtain rose on Gavin Lee and the chorus as romanticised chimney sweeps, the groan in my throat turned into a gurgle of delight when they attacked the opening number with the precision and vigour we are at last beginning to expect from the British Musical.

From then on in, it only got better. The Banks parents, personified by David Haig and Linzi Hateley, seemed almost believable, although I felt they were in all probability close relatives of the Darling Family who were also having their own servant and family problems round the corner.

One empathised with the children’s Nanny problems and Laura Michelle Kelly’s Mary Poppins dropping in to take over was no let down, quite the reverse.

Miss Kelly has clearly learnt from her stint as Eliza that character adds to a role’s charm and as Mary Poppins she was firing on all cylinders as the no-nonsense , acerbic yet magical Nanny longed for by the Banks children.

My only quibble (yes there has to be one !) was that the children I saw were on many occasions inaudible. Whether this was due to bad sound production, or the acoustics of the theatre, I am not in a position to say but a lot of their lines and lyrics were lost on me.

For the rest of the time, I had no problem with the audibility of the rest of the cast which I appreciated since Julian Fellowes’ book is a cut above the average libretto as he develops his plot concisely, logically and with a firm grasp on the four unities.

His 'book', which is based on several of P.L. Travers' originals, is darker and less whimsical than the film, although still in keeping with lightness required of a musical .

The fear of the rather Pooterish Mr. Banks of losing his job was deftly sketched and although the resolution had an E. Nesbitt flavour, it suited the tone he had set for the whole piece.

This tone was faithfully preserved in Richard Eyre’s direction which was fast paced and full of delightful bits of business highlighting the plot, such as Mary Poppins return down the banister to rescue the family from Rosemary Ashe’s dreadful (in the plot sense) replacement nanny.

Miss Ashe is, as always, a delight and I would have liked to have seen the Killer Soprano given a better chance with the killer Nanny.

Gavin Lee obliterates all memory (thankfully) of Dick van Dyke and makes Bert his own part. His scenes with Mary Poppins and the slight hint of wistful longing he brought to them was one of the many delights of the evening.

He sings and dances with precision and grace and heralds the arrival of a very talented leading man although I doubt whether we will have the opportunity to see him in another part for some time.

Linzi Hateley, as Mrs Banks, proved yet again that she is one of the most consistently reliable and delightful performers on the English stage and she is superbly assisted in this by David Haig’s understated yet telling performance as her exasperating husband.

Mr Haig is a dark horse. Last seen giving a superlative performance as 'Uncle' in Journeys End, he has done a complete volte face and produced a singing voice and a comic performance which must endear him as much to the groundlings as it did to me.

I was also delighted to see Julia Sutton once more on the West End stage in the small but telling part of the Bird Woman.

Without wishing to appear unchivalrous, I have fond memories of her in the musicals of the Sixties and thereafter and it is wonderful to realise that the years between have not aged nor dimmed her charm, ability nor looks.

Mathew Bourne proves yet again what a sense of the theatre he has and how skilfully he is able to instil this into his choreography. As I have already indicated, he is credited with co-direction and one can recognise in several of the set pieces and scene transitions, his particular staging ability as exemplified by his ballet masterpieces.

Stiles and Drewe confirmed my view of their abilities with their new numbers and re-writes which I look forward to enjoying with greater attention when the cast CD arrives.

This is a highly professional show with charm and delicate nuances which place it for me in the pantheon of 'The Great Musicals'.

I only hope, to quote the ineffable Larry Hart, it is not 'Too good for the average man'.

I should think not as it has everything going for it to delight both adults and children but nowadays one never knows.

Anyway, I shall always be grateful to Mary Poppins for the spoonful of sugar she gave me which took away the taste of some of the other untalented and tuneless musicals which have been spawned over the last few years. May she continue to do so for others for many years yet to come.

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Mary Poppins - a musical based on the stories of PL Travers and the Walt Disney film.
Book: Julian Fellowes
Original Music and Lyrics: Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman
New Songs and additional Music and Lyrics: George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Director: Richard Eyre
Choreographer and Co- director: Mathew Bourne
Co-Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Sound: Andrew Bruce

Produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh

CAST: Laura Michelle Kelly; Gavin Lee; David Haig; Linzi Hateley; Rosemary Ashe; Jenny Galloway; Julia Sutton; Nicola Bowman; Carrie Fletcher; Peggy Lee Friar; Charlotte Spencer; Faye Spittlehouse; Perry Millward; Jack Montgomery; Harry Stott; Ben Watton; Louisa Shaw; Tim Morgan; Claire Machin; Ian Burford; Gerard Carey; Kevin Williams; Stuart Neal; Alan Vicary; Nathan Taylor; Melanie La Barrie; Savannah Stevenson; Poppy Tierney; Terel Nugent.
WITH: Jye Frasca; Lewis Greenslade; Howard Jones; Sarah Keeton; Mathew Malthouse; Stephen McGlynn; Tamara McKoy Patterson; Zak Nemorin; Agnes Vandrepote; Sarah Bayliss; Ashley Day; Philip Michael Thomas; Pippa Raine; Emma Woods; Andrew Wright.

Prince Edward Theatre: 30 Old Compton Street, London, W1V 6HS.
Evening Performances - Monday to Saturday: 7.30pm
Matinees Thursday & Saturday: 2.30pm
Box Office:0870 850 0393 (booking to April 1, 2006); Order tickets now

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