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Mary Poppins review at the Bristol Hippodrome Theatre – ‘surprising and spectacular’

Zizi Strallen in Mary Poppins at the Hippodrome, Bristol. Photo: Johan Persson Zizi Strallen in Mary Poppins at the Hippodrome, Bristol. Photo: Johan Persson

Mary Poppins, the airborne nanny with a single-minded mission to heal broken families, is taking to the flies – and more – yet again in Bristol, where the world premiere of the Cameron Mackintosh/Disney co-production of a stage version of Disney’s 1964 film took place 11 years ago.

Since then, she has flown to the West End, Broadway, Australia and undertaken both UK and US national tours. Now she’s back at her original home, as simultaneously confident, solicitous yet officious as ever, as Mackintosh and Disney send her out on another UK tour.

On the one hand, it feels resolutely old-fashioned, a well-crafted book musical of the old school. It is a family show about families that audiences will naturally bring a warm glow of affection to, and they will be amply rewarded as they revisit its now immortal classics by original composers the Sherman brothers (Richard and Robert), including the Oscar-winning Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, and of course that weird subversive language lesson of Supercalifragilsticexpialidocious.

These have also been newly augmented by songs from British team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, for whom the highest compliment that can be paid is that they blend effortlessly into what has gone before so it all feels of a piece, and includes at least two classics of its own, Practically Perfect and Anything Can Happen.

On the other hand, despite its turn of the last century setting, its concerns also feel bang up to date, with its portrait of a stuffy banker, facing redundancy after a potentially making a bad business decision, who discovers that there’s more to life than making money, and reconnects with his wife and two young children, who he pushed aside when he became preoccupied with work.

Book writer Julian Fellowes, drawing on both the original Disney film and the original PL Travers stories it was based on, gives it a darker, more troubling and dramatically piercing heart, while still retaining the light fluff of fantasies that thread through it, so that toys and park statues variously come to life, for instance, or a dancing troupe of tap-dancing chimney sweeps gloriously floods the stage. The latter evolves into a heart-stopping production number, courtesy of co-choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear, that has Bert (the physically slight but charming Matt Lee) execute a breathtaking tap-dance right around the proscenium, at times while suspended upside down.

That’s just one of a series of magnificent set pieces in this sumptuously designed and executed show, in which Bob Crowley’s sets render the Banks household like a giant doll’s house springing to life as a pop-up book might. Flooding the stage with colour for Jolly Holiday, or bringing a childlike sense of wonder at the simplest things in Let’s Go Fly a Kite, it offers a series of exquisite stage pictures.

Though one or two of the supporting performances suffer from broad pantomime-like characterisations, the show also benefits massively from the restraint it offers at other times, most notably in Zizi Strallen’s superbly articulated Mary Poppins, who brings both formality and feeling to this brilliant creation. She also sings as beautifully as she moves.

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Verdict
A show that offers a warm wallow in nostalgia also provides something more gritty, surprising and spectacular
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