Mary Poppins may be, as she tells us as she magically appears onto the Festival Theatre stage in Edinburgh tonight, “practically perfect”, but Zizi Strallen is “absolutely perfect”. Zizi Strallen seems to have been “perfectly made” for the role of the magical nanny from the PL Travers books and the classic Walt Disney film.
The role of Julie Andrews in the Walt Disney film is now such an identifiable movie icon that it was always going to take someone very special to live up to any audience expectations of what Mary Poppins should be like, and Zizi Strallen is that person with a magical performance that has made her interpretation of Mary the one which anyone ever playing this role on stage in years to come will be judged against.
The whole show is simply a magical theatrical experience made with such an obvious love of the original source material and attention to detail in every aspect of its production. The creative team reads like a “who’s who” of 21st century theatre. Production by Cameron Mackintosh (whom PL Travers trusted with her beloved Mary – PL did not like being referred to as having “created” Mary Poppins...she arrived), Richard Eyre director, Matthew Bourne co-director and choreographer, Stephen Mear co-choreographer plus George Stiles and Anthony Drewe – new songs, additional music and lyrics. Add to that superb scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley, lighting, sound, special effects and of course a hugely talented cast of actors, singers and dancers and you can see that this production simply has quality written all over it from concept to final stage performance. The final piece in the puzzle is also that, due to the fact that the stage and film rights were held separately, this production also has the direct involvement of Disney and Thomas Schumacher, producer and president of the Disney Theatrical Group.
Mary Poppins the stage show takes the classic events and those well loved songs from the original Disney movie, characters from some of the other Mary Poppins books (there were six) and the result is really an on-stage musical with core elements from everything and a feeling of what the never made follow up to the original film may have included.
Zizi Strallen may be the perfect Mary Poppins, but she has some help on stage with a cast that like her just seem to magically fit their on stage roles and all of this is played out against outstanding sets and special effects on stage that are at times outstanding and leave the audience in wonder.
Matt Lee as the “magical” chimney sweep and jack-of-all-trades Bert is a perfect combination with Zizi on stage as they sing and dance their way through the show. Mary and Bert are obviously old friends (although we are never told how), and have an obvious affection as old friends for one another, and Zizi and Bert play their relationship so convincingly.
Of course, this story would be no story without the Banks family that Mary Poppins comes to help and Milo Twomey and Rebecca Lock give us outstanding performances as George and Winifred Banks with a wonderful contrast on stage between the serious banking father and the once upon a time stage performer of a mother. Running riot of course through the household and getting rid of every nanny to date are the children, Jane and Michael, who are played at various times on stage by a variety of young actors, and tonight’s two were very good. These are very demanding roles for young actors; they really do have to have high performance skills levels to pull these roles off.
Some wonderful “character” roles here too with at times little scene stealing parts for Wendy Ferguson as Mrs Brill the Cook and Penelope Woodman as the father’s original stern nanny Miss Andrew.
There are of course some of the best known movie songs ever in this show that pretty much everyone in the audience would know...songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “ A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim, Chim, Cher-ee”, but one of my favourites from the film has always been the often overlooked “Feed The Birds (Tuppence a Bag)”. Grainne Renihan as Bird Woman gives us a touchingly delicate performance of this song here.
Mary Poppins is simply musical theatre at is highest production and cast performance values and you can see just by the happy faces on the audience as they leave at the end of the show that Mary Poppins has once again spread a little bit more of her magic to everyone this evening.
Mary Poppins is on at The Festival Theatre until 21st May (not Mondays) , so if there are still any tickets for this show, try to get hold of one.
Review by Tom King