UK tour, Curve Leicester
16th October, 2015
The new tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s and Disney’s musical Mary Poppins, with new music by Stiles and Drew, is, as a successful musical should be, exhilarating. However, I can understand if someone is cynical about this new tour. Firstly, Curve have raised ticket prices for the show (it is apparently the first time they have had a seat over £50 for a show). There is also a wagon load of merchandise in the foyer, ranging from mugs and programmes to mini handbags and umbrellas, from which they are also selling stuff at the exit as the audience leave the theatre. Furthermore, you may say that Mary Poppins is one of the newest mega musicals. In a section on McTheatre in his book Theatre & Globalisation, Dan Rebellato argues that these big shows can diminish some of the virtues of theatre: ‘its liveness, the uniqueness of each performance, its immediacy, its ability to respond to place and time’ (Rebellato 2009: 41-2). ‘In place of these virtues’, he argues, ‘these shows appear almost entirely unchanged wherever they are’ (Rebellato 2009: 42). Indeed, for this tour, although it is still Richard Eyre’s production (and Matthew Bourne’s), they have got in a tour director, James Powell, to try to recreate the show presumably whilst Eyre is working on Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Powell has previously worked on Mary Poppins, including the last UK tour.
One positive aspect of mega musicals, however, is that reproductions are no longer the ‘pale and shabby imitation of the metropolitan original’ (Rebellato 2009: 41). Indeed, this tour has all of the tricks and effects that made the London production so magical. The house set is smaller than it was in London, instead going for a pop-up book design, but this tour is superb. And even if liveness is compromised, it may give the commercial touring circuit a boost. Regarding the high ticket prices, there is a bit in the show where Mr Banks turns down a bank loan to someone because the idea simply wanted to create money, but had not heart and offered nothing much else in return. Well the prices for this show are in return for a stellar musical which Friday night’s audience (myself included) lapped up.
The musical features a series of set pieces, each one more impressive than the last. These range from Mary emptying her bag to set up the nursery, the collapsing kitchen which puts itself back together again after a stirring A Spoonful of Sugar, Bert’s extraordinary proscenium walk during Step in Time, and finally Mary flying over the audience for the finale. They form a series of magical coups-de-théâtre which adhere to the lyrics of one of Stiles and Drewe’s new songs, Anything Can Happen, referring to the good that Mary Poppins does for the Banks family. Indeed, the power of the imagination is one of the themes of this musical along with, like the PL Travers novel and 1964 film, women’s rights, family duties and tradition. Both The Sherman Brothers’ original music and Stiles and Drewe’s new songs are wonderful and, at times, soaring – although I do wonder if Mary Poppins would say ‘no flies on me’! In particular, Being Mrs Banks, Cherry Tree Lane, Practically Perfect may be new songs but they fit in with the rest of the score so well and are more memorable than some new musical theatre songs. However, I did prefer Temper Temper to its replacement Playing the Game.
Bob Crowey’s colourful and clever design is superlative, and the choreography (whether it’s by Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear or associate choreographer Geoffrey Garrat) is some of the best I’ve seen. Those big numbers such as Step in Time and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gave me goose bumps and the park fantasy scene is joyful. Out of the cast, Zizi Strallen is an impressive Mary Poppins and Matt Lee does well as the chirpy Bert driving the show forward (even if I thought that his Australian accent could be heard sometimes). Also, Rebecca Lock, Wendy Ferguson and Grainne Renihan are excellent and Milo Twomey is very pleasing as one of the show’s best characters, Mr Banks.
The tour is still in its early performances at Leicester’s Curve but, overall, I heartily recommend this new tour of Mary Poppins (which could be London bound) as a great family show.