Disney & Cameron Macintosh Production
Directed by Richard Eyre
Original music by Richard Sherman and Robert B Sherman
New songs and additionl muic and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Book by Julian Fellowes
Norwich Theatre Royal
Wednesday 12th July 2016
Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins
Matt Lee as Bert
Milo Twomey as George Banks
Rebecca Lock as Winifred Banks
‘A few days in Norwich then …’
‘Remember the last time we were here? We saw John Cale’s Paris 1919 at the Theatre Royal.’
‘Oh, yes. There’s bound to be something good on. Let’s look online …’
‘Oh, dear. It’s Mary Poppins. For the whole month.’
‘It won’t be expensive …’
‘It’s a huge production. It’ll have to be.’
Up On The Roof: Matt Lee as Bert; Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins
We booked tickets because of the film. No, not THAT film. I mean Saving Mr Banks, the story of how Disney persuaded P.L. Travers to let him film Mary Poppins, with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. We also noticed that Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes had done the book, and we are already booked to see his new version of Half A Sixpence at Chichester. It turns out that production will have additional Stiles and Drewe music and Cameron Mackintosh production too.
It’s titled “A musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film” and Cameron Mackintosh explains how he tried to get permission for a stage musical for years, and found P.L. Travers sympathetic. Both understood that they couldn’t start from scratch, because the Sherman brothers songs were now so deeply embedded in perceptions of the story. Mackintosh and Travers wanted additional new songs, and as he developed the idea he found that bits from other stories and a proposed film sequel had also been selected by the then late Travers.
Judging from the film Saving Mr Banks, the greatest joy to Travers if she were looking down from the heavens would be “no frigging cartoon penguins” at last.
Norwich Theatre Royal appears to focus more on musicals than drama, rather like Southampton’s Mayflower. You need large theatres for these productions, and Norwich is not at Mayflower or Chichester dimensions, but this is running for a month. You need large theatres (with large backstage areas) because of the stupendous scale of the production, The cast must run to around thirty, playing at least fifty parts. They have a twelve piece pit orchestra. They list four in the wardrobe department, five for wigs. They can’t all be on tour, but the cast have to be silver all over statues, naked but for a fig leaf, chimney sweeps, elderly bankers, people in the park.
Mary Poppins arrives in The Banks house
The sets are lowered and raised and slid on from the sides constantly. I loved the impressionist park backdrops and the semi-transparent trees … and the railings and the house and the park and the roofs and the bank interior.
Out of sheer laziness, I’m not going to retype the vast cast list. Four are pulled out as “starring” on the programme and I’ll stick to that. Stage musicals were an area we had little experience of for years… Chichester turned us back on to them. I still marvel that there is this whole alternative thespian circuit where you have to act, sing and dance to the highest level. The park keeper (Antony Lawrence) and cook (Wendy Ferguson as Mrs Brill) are also excellent comedy roles. What’s striking is that in reviewing Macbeth last week, I had seen and reviewed more than half the cast before. Here, I don’t think I’d seen any before, though most of Milo Twomey’s biodata is classical theatre from Shakespeare to Wilde. We saw the dirtor, Richard Eyres, fine version of Quatermaine’s Terms in Brighton in 2013. The only connection.
Mary Poppins (Zizi Strallen)with chimney sweeps
I have rewatched Mary Poppins (the film) with grandkids. I was never a fan …. Dick Van Dyke’s worst English accent ever filmed killed it for me, let alone his horrific gurning. So it’s not surprising that I thought Matt Lee’s Bert towered over the film version. What is more surprising is that Zizi Strallen’s Mary Poppins towered over Julie Andrews in the film version too. You see people who are brilliant dancers and movers, but there is an indefinable click of movement and sense of timing that lifts a dancer above merely “brilliant” and Zizi Strallen has it. Her stiff backed Mary Poppins moves on ascending and descending stairs are also very funny, and her singing voice matches Julie Andrews too. More she had a couple of tiny sexy wriggles when near Bert that gave added spice to the film version of the role.
The Banks Family (Milo Twomey as George, Rebecca Lock as Winifred)
There are ten sets of children because of working hours laws, playing Jane and Michael Banks, and we don’t know which two kids we saw, but they were the best child actors in my memory. The parents, Milo Twomey as George Banks, and Rebecca Lock as Winifred Banks are perfect. Christine Tucker is the ferocious nanny from hell, i.e. Mr Banks’ old nanny. A nice idea here is referencing Julie Andrews by calling her Mrs Andrews, and when she’s first mentioned, George says it’s a pity they can’t get Mrs Andrews as a nanny, but they “can’t afford her.”
The nursery set (Ziti Strallen as Mary Poppins)
Mostly the music in the Disney is “annoyingly catchy” and the new songs work well. Of the originals, Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite stand out because they are more than ‘instant earworms.’ On Hal Wilner’s album of various novel versions of Disney songs, my favourite keyboard player, Garth Hudson of The Band, does Feed The Birds. It was sung here by Grainne Renihan as the Bird Woman.
I really didn’t think I’d enjoy this, being drawn by the high levels of stagecraft and lighting (sorry, I still continue to watch lighting plots), and I had doubts for the first bit of the first half. By the second half I was thoroughly enjoying it. The huge chimney sweeps number with twenty plus dancers was the culmination and I gasped with all the kids when Mary Poppins flew, and gasped even more when she flew over the auditorium … a feat I last saw Bonnie Langford do in Peter Pan, which shows how long ago it was. I joined heartily in with the expected total standing ovation.