Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim-chim-chiree! Mary Poppins has landed in London – bag, brolly and all – 11 years after she took off to tour the globe. Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s adaptation of PL Travers’ much-loved children’s book – and the even-more-loved 1964 film – originally opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in December 2004, picking up two Olivier Awards.
It closed in 2008, but it’s always been on a stage somewhere – America, Japan, Australia, even Iceland. Now it’s back where it all began in the West End, taking up residence at the Prince Edward Theatre until late March and basking in the glow of the 2018 film sequel, Mary Poppins Returns.
This latest visitation has a new Mary – Zizi Strallen, and a new Bert – Charlie Stemp – but the rest is pretty much the same: George Stiles and Anthony Drewe adding to the Sherman Brothers’ iconic original songs, alongside a book from Julian Fellowes, a design from Bob Crowley, choreography from Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear, and direction from ex-National Theatre helmsman Richard Eyre.
But is this a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious return for a festive family favourite? Or does it leave the critics wishing they could go and fly a kite instead? Is there any musical magic left in Mary Poppins?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews. It’s the life he leads.
This musical version of Mary Poppins was expressly designed to steer a course somewhere in between the book and the film, which Travers purportedly detested. For many critics, the snow-strewn, star-studded storyline is just what the doctor ordered.
The show is “rapturously pleasurable” and “an unassailable treat” according to the outgoing Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★), “two-and-three-quarter hours of cheery, unalloyed escapism” according to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail), and a “feel-good extravaganza” that “defies both logic and pessimism” according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★).
“Just as Mary Poppins is on a magnificent mission to heal a divided family, so the show has returned at exactly the moment it is most needed, to heal a divided nation as we hurtle into yet another divisive election,” cheers Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) heartily agrees.
“Never mind the needs of the children this Christmas,” he writes. “It’s we careworn adults who stand to benefit the most from the “jolly holiday with Mary, a medicinal sugar-rush dispensed not so much by the spoonful as by the crateful”.
Not everyone contributes to the festive fanfare, though. For Marianka Swain (TheArtsDesk, ★★★), this is “a lavish if somewhat muddled and inescapably old-fashioned revival” that’s “sure to succeed commercially via the nostalgic power of Poppins, but, unlike its titular nanny, never quite takes flight”.
“There’s still something missing: the thrill you get from losing yourself in a genuinely inspired song-and-dance spectacle,” concurs Clive Davis (Times, ★★★), for whom this is “a sleekly manufactured amalgam” that “ticks boxes while rarely setting your pulse racing”.
Scroogiest of all is Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★), who finds the whole thing rushed, disjointed, and cynical. “Watch the film, read the books,” he urges. “Save the magic.”
For those critics that find themselves overcome with Christmas cheer, there’s little that’s out of place about Mary Poppins. The music, the message, the story, the staging – all are spit-spot superb.
The choreography is “mesmerising” according to Marmion, Eyre directs with “pace and panache” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), and the whole thing is “full of spectacle and stand-out numbers” according to Shenton.
For others, though, everything is not quite right, and especially for Bano. “When so many top-drawer creatives are trying to cast different spells, no wonder the enchantment doesn’t work,” he writes. “Each creative does his own thing, and the result is a series of set-pieces that don’t mesh. There’s no joined-up thinking.”
But there’s one thing about the production that everyone agrees on: Bob Crowley’s designs are a delight. It’s “a marvel” and “a wonder” for Bano, a “bewitching pop-up toy theatre” for Shenton, and an “enchanting doll’s house” for Marmion.
“Huge sides open up for the hall and staircase, while a stucco-fronted attic drops down for the children’s bedroom, before we are whisked across the smoking skyscape of fantasy Edwardian London,” he describes.
Zizi isn’t the first Strallen sister to take on the part of Poppins – her sister Strallen also did in London, New York and Sydney. But the most-loved Mary of all is Julie Andrews, of course. Can Strallen stroll and soar her way out from Andrews’ shadow?
For some critics, she can. She’s “as mischievous as she is magnificent” according to Shenton, “conveys the insoluble mystery of Mary” according to Billington and is “practically perfect in every way” according to Cavendish, quoting a line from one of Stiles and Drewe’s songs.
“Poker-faced, with finishing-school deportment and hands resting lightly on avian-topped brolly, she casts her spell with cool panache,” extols Marmion. “Terse, tender and very otherworldly, she’s a Mary that keeps on giving – right through to her final flypast.”
For others, though, she struggles. She has “an oddly doll-like stiffness” according to Alice Saville (Time Out, ★★★), while for Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★) she’s “somewhat blank”, and for Swain she’s “efficient” but “ill-defined”, lacking “that Julie Andrews mix of warmth and authority”.
The reviewers are less split over Stemp, though. Fresh from breaking Broadway opposite Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, his Bert is heaped with praise from all quarters. He’s “captivating” for Shenton, “thoroughly charming” for Swain, and “a joy to watch” for Bano.
“The high point of the show, quite literally, comes when Bert tap dances horizontally on the walls of the proscenium and then upside down on its arch,” writes Billington. “It says a lot for Charlie Stemp that he retains a boyish cheerfulness even when dancing, Astaire-like, on the ceiling.”
For several critics – Michael Billington, Dominic Cavendish and Mark Shenton among them – it’s five-star fantastic, a triumph of production and performance that outshines its earlier incarnation. For others, it’s only average. And if you believe Tim Bano, it’s almost an out-and-out awful exercise in cynical commercialism.
Everyone can agree that Bob Crowley’s set is spectacular, and Charlie Stemp’s Bert is brimming with bravado, but beyond that, there’s nothing but disagreement. Which, ahead of the first festive election in almost 100 years, feels oddly appropriate.