Mary Poppins continues at the Bristol Hippodrome until 28 November and is on tour in the UK and Ireland until October 2016.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ may well no longer be politically correct, with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver bullying the Prime Minister for months now over the health issue. As a song, though, it remains at the heart of this surprisingly old-fashioned Disney/Cameron Mackintosh production, currently playing on the massive Bristol Hippodrome stage, where it had its world premiere in 2004 on the way into London.
It seems amazing that, in the decade since, the story of the world’s favourite Nanny has been seen worldwide by more than 11 million people. But if time has flown even faster than our Mary, there has also been an outflow of new ideas in musical theatre in that period – and not a single one is reflected in this largely unimaginative revival of the stage adaptation of the much-loved Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film.
As with any Cameron Mackintosh production, of course, there are spectacular showcase numbers – the literally uplifting ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ and the gravity-defying upside down dance across the top of the proscenium arch by cheeky Cockney chimney sweep Bert, for example. But set against these are a disappointing number of lemons. Two of the most familiar songs from the film – ‘Jolly Holiday’ and ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ – here stagger straight out of the Oliver! and Scrooge canon of London-located musicals.
There are seven new songs by the British team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, alongside the film score of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. But only one addition, Mary’s description of herself as ‘Practically Perfect’, has real impact. So despite an original production team of director Richard Eyre, designer Bob Crowley, choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear and book by Julian Fellowes – it is left to the back story of banker Mr Banks, Mary Poppins’ employer, to bring more than just sentiment to the plot. Here Milo Twomey strikes just the right note of contrition, as he discovers that it is family that matters most in life.
In the title role, Zizi Strallen is almost doll-like at times. Her belief in her virtues stays just the right side of being self-righteous, though, and her voice has great clarity throughout. Australian actor/dancer Matt Lee won a 2011 Best Male Actor in a Musical award in his home country as Bert, and manages a far more convincing Cockney accent than Mr Van Dyke, while members of the entire company react brilliantly on the occasions that their dance skills are able to shine through.
One musical moment that does stand out comes with musical theatre stalwart Grainne Renihan’s Bird Woman duet with Mary in ‘Feed the Birds’ (sung as a solo by Mary in the film), and musical director Ian Townsend and his 12-piece band handle the show’s changes of mood with panache.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on being partners in rhyme
Interview – Robert J. Sherman reveals new musical Love Birds at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe