Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It took years of negotiation for PL Travers to agree to a film adaptation of her best-selling Mary Poppins books. When Disney finally released its partially animated musical version in 1964, it made Travers’ gifted nanny a household name, and her contemporary ubiquity is almost entirely based on the film rather than Travers’s eight books.
Travers would surely be heartened by the stage musical, which looks anew at the novels and restores defining episodes from the series, including a historical holy terror of a nanny, Mrs Andrews, who has traumatised Mr Banks into his current repressed emotional state.
It would have been easy for Disney, which co-produced this stage musical with Cameron Mackintosh, to transpose the film to the stage, but the care it takes in avoiding that shortcut makes for a robust drama as well as a stunning theatrical production.
Bob Crowley’s set comes to life like a pop-up book, a black-and-white lithographic world opening out to technicolour three-dimensionality with the arrival of Poppins (Zizi Strallen) to depression-era London. The book, by Julian Fellowes, foregrounds the Banks’s family crisis, and the scenario of economic pressure and recession strike a contemporary note. Emotionally absent father George (Milo Twomey) and muddled mother Winifred (Rebecca Lock) have inadvertently created a pair of brats who run their nanny out of Cherry Tree Lane in a bid to get the attention of their parents.
The memorable film score by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman is enhanced by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who make subtle adaptations to famous numbers such as A Spoonful of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, as well as adding new songs, including Practically Perfect and the dark spell of Brimstone and Treacle, a defining number.
Choreography, by ballet superstar Matthew Bourne, makes use of classical as well as contemporary moves, most impressively in Jolly Holiday and Step in Time. It's a difficult task for Matt Lee as shape-shifting chimney sweep Bert to match Dick Van Dyke's shoe-shuffle across the rooftops. But, walking up the proscenium arch, performing an upside-down routine, Lee manages to take the audience's breath away.
Lee’s quick-step is nothing compared to the show-stealing finale, however, when Mary Poppins makes her final exit, leaving the Banks to their happy ever after. It is probably one of the most amazing theatrical moments that any child (or adult) could witness.
- Until January 9th