It is unlikely many people noticed Cameron Mackintosh sneaking into the dress circle to watch the final moments of this long-awaited stage adaptation of Mary Poppins. When a show is as captivating as this one, it is nice to put the world outside on hold for a while.
With the blessing of the author’s estate plus a close collaboration with Disney, Mackintosh’s 20 or so years of trying to bring everyone’s favourite fictional nanny to the stage has finally paid off. This high-flying, joyful production is capable of entertaining dedicated fans of the original books and 1964 movie as well as winning over a whole new generation of youngsters, some maybe being introduced to Mary Poppins for the very first time.
Leading a top-class creative team, Richard Eyre directs with both subtlety and flair, always staying true to the sentiments of both the libretto and score. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious could easily have been overdone, instead, the number is integrated well, with Matthew Bourne (also co-directior) and Stephen Mear’s clever choreography working brilliantly alongside. Elsewhere, there is plenty of fun to be had as chimney sweeps jump over the rooftops for Step in Time, while the simplicity of Feed the Birds cannot help but bring a tear to the eye.
Accompanying these memorable Sherman brothers songs is a wealth of new material from British writers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Though their compositions capture the style of the original score and fit easily into the piece, they also have a welcome contemporary freshness. From Mary introducing herself to young Jane and Michael Banks (Charlotte Spencer and Harry Stott) in Practically Perfect to the magical finale of Anything Can Happen, Stiles and Drewe prove their worth many times over.
Two of the duo’s numbers also accompany scarier sequences for children – a gang of angry toys warning Jane and Michael not to lose their tempers and Mr Banks’ own termagant nanny returning to a very mixed welcome. Who knows whether these aspects of Julian Fellowes’ adaptation, inspired by the original PL Travers books, will upset those expecting a straight translation of screen to stage. It seems unlikely when he has so cleverly edited and merged the different narrative threads, featuring again and again his wonderful turn of phrase.
Within a splendid ensemble, Rosemary Ashe may only have one number but she makes ample impression as the ‘holy terror’ of a nanny Miss Andrew, while Jenny Galloway proves her great comic timing as housekeeper Mrs Brill. David Haig and Linzi Hateley are ideally cast as George and Winifred Banks – evoking memories of David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns – while bringing an added depth to their relationship. Gavin Lee is a wonderful Bert, occasionally playing narrator as he views developments at Cherry Tree Lane from afar but really coming into his own as the great song and dance man he is. And the Cockney accent is not bad either. Note-perfect Laura Michelle Kelly shines as Mary Poppins, never ubiquitous, while relishing both the mischievousness and seriousness of her role.
Bob Crowley’s outstanding set and costume designs, along with Howard Harrison’s lighting, overshadow the other big musical openings this year. Whether the action is based in the main house or nursery of Cherry Tree Lane – with the roof descending on the latter for the chimney-top scenes – or at the bank where projected number crunching clerks count their figures, the settings are always innovative and atmospheric.