Mary Poppins returns. No, not the Emily Blunt film, rather Cameron Mackintosh’s muddled stage musical, back in the Prince Edward Theatre after 11 years away.
His have-stage-rights-and-eat-them approach gives us a hybridised version of film and books that supposedly respects PL Travers’ hatred of the Disney classic while still shoving in most of its songs.
When so many top-drawer creatives are trying to cast different spells, no wonder the enchantment doesn’t work. You’ve got Julian Fellowes trying to cram in characters and scenes from the books, and Richard Eyre’s A-to-B direction chafing against co-director Matthew Bourne’s ballet moves, which jar with Stephen Mear’s choreography.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have provided new songs that fill long, forgettable stretches alongside the Sherman Brothers’ iconic original compositions, tunes etched in the cultural consciousness. Stiles and Drewe’s music is frustratingly bland, the lyrics worse, with every tedious couplet in service of the rhyme, rather than story, sentiment or character.
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.
This isn’t the first time a member of clan Strallen has had a pop at Poppins – Scarlett played the role on stage in 2005 – and Zizi is returning to the part after touring the show in 2015. But the shadow of Julie Andrews looms large. She created such a complex, comprehensive character on screen and Strallen seems torn between imitation and deviation.
When she delivers her lines, particularly to the children, she’s as petulant as they are and devoid of authority. Her movements are overdone, her arms spread out like she’s ready to launch into Swan Lake. But when she sings, she nails it: her voice elegant, stern and loving at once.
Bob Crowley’s set design is still a wonder: gorgeous pastel pages from picture books and 17 Cherry Tree Lane opening up like a doll’s house. George Banks’ bank looms vertiginously up to the ceiling. It’s a marvel.
Some of the supporting cast also impress. Claire Machin’s comically harried housekeeper Mrs Brill is a delight, as is Charlie Stemp – not only is he a far more convincing Cockney than Dick Van Dyke and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he’s a joy to watch. He excels in the Step in Time routine, the intro reworked into majestic 3/4 time before the dazzling tap dancing gets going.
The role of the Bird Woman is made profoundly moving by the 86-year-old Petula Clark. She gives an astonishingly plaintive performance of Feed the Birds.
But, even at almost three hours, the whole thing feels rushed. The songs are taken at a lick, and the production jolts from one set-piece to another without pause for breath. This is Mary Poppins with strings attached – and not just when she flies out over the audience. Watch the film, read the books. Save the magic.