Sydney Lyric, May 26
Mary Poppins just clicks her fingers and another theatrical coup explodes upon the stage. You sit there smiling away as flats open into a house like a giant pop-up book, statues come to acrobatic life, Mary pulls improbably large items from her neat carpet bag, or she flies through the air with the greatest of ease. This is what’s possible when the limitless imagination of PL Travers (author of the Poppins books) is given three-dimensional life by the genius of Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs, in a production co-created by Cameron Mackintosh and originally directed by Richard Eyre.
The stage musical is much more magical than the Disney film. Where the film was often too twee and overly reliant on Julie Andrews’ charm in the title role, here the characters and performances are more even and the magic more wondrous. The musical is also truer to Travers’ books, while using the film’s songs (by the Sherman brothers) and leaning on a couple of its characterisations.
For those who have come in late, Mary Poppins is a nanny who’s a cross between a white witch, a fairy godmother, a prim schoolmarm and a creature with boundless admiration for her own perfection. She’s also every child’s dream of the ideal grown-up companion because she knows how to play. So when the troubled Banks family has been through six nannies in four months – the children being a bit of a handful and their father valuing order over affection and fun – Mary Poppins shows up to set things right again. The gentle moral, that a healthy family is a fully interactive one, is shrouded in endless layers of enchantment.
There would be no show without a magnetic Mary, and Stefanie Jones is certainly that. Her soprano voice is round, her back ramrod straight, her feet splayed like a dancer’s, her hands clasped like a chorister, and her eyes twinkle with mild vanity and well-intentioned mischief. She’s the automatic focus whenever she’s on stage
A glitch in the film was Dick Van Dyke’s dodgy cockney accent as Bert, a scrivener and chimney sweep who is Mary’s accomplice and facilitator, and would love to be more than her friend. Jack Chambers’ performance blows Van Dyke’s out of the Thames, and makes Bert a much more worthy foil for Mary. Tom Wren is an amusing George Banks, the father on the steep learning curve, and Lucy Maunder excels as his wife, now (slightly oddly) an ex-actor rather than the suffragette she was in the film. Their children, Jane and her little brother Michael, are appealingly played by Chloe Delle-Vedove and Will Steiner (from a pool of child actors), with Michael having some of the show’s sharpest lines.
Nancye Hayes is beautifully cast as the Bird Woman, Hannah Waterman is a riotous Mrs Brill, and Chelsea Plumley, Robert Grubb and Gareth Isaac admirably round out the leads. The ensemble matches them, and the execution of Stephen Mear’s choreography for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious takes the breath away.
The show does have two flaws, however. One is that some songs, including the interminable Step in Time, were always lame, as are some of the newly penned numbers. More generally Act Two falls away compared with the wonder of Act One, the story losing momentum and nearly half the songs being reprised. But go and see it. The stage craft and performances won’t just bewitch your children, they’ll bring out your own long-buried inner child.