Scarlett Strallen as the new Mary Poppins in the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh production is certainly flying high. She - along with the other major additions to the cast in the form of Aden Gillett and Eliza Lumley as Mr and Mrs Banks - gives the show a boost as the nanny who comes to sort out a frankly dysfunctional family.

As a huge fan of the movie, for me it would be almost impossible to surpass the iconic performance of Julie Andrews, and few actresses could come close without merely copying, which Strallen wisely doesn’t do. However, she does take more of the sweet and mischievous qualities familiar to those who fondly remember the film - and that's the majority of the audience judging by the reactions to some of the openings of the much-loved Sherman brothers’ classics, never mind the applause which follows afterwards - than her predecessor (Olivier Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly), but keeps a fine balance between the genial manner of the screen Poppins and the brusquer nanny of PL Travers’ books.

Strallen has a wonderful blend of coolness and control but with a great sense of fun – and a very pleasing singing voice, as well as an amazing glide of a walk. There's also real chemistry between her and Gavin Lee, who has stayed on from the original cast as chimney sweep Bert and continues to stun with his sheer energy and endearing performance.

Gillett is more blustering than fearsome as Mr Banks, which makes it difficult to understand why the children (excellent performances by Lydia Bannister and Ross McCormack on press night) claim to hate him, but perhaps there's more sympathy for the character that way. His transformation from a business-minded father who has no time or respect for his wife and children into a man who realises that family is the most important thing is genuinely touching. As Mrs Banks, Lumley is likeable and charming, though perhaps a little bland.

Supporting comedy comes from new cast members Sarah Flind and Andrew Pepper as the hapless servants who almost literally bring the house down (care of designer Bob Crowley). Ray C Davis is a charismatic park keeper, and original cast members Rosemary Ashe and Julia Sutton (as fearsome nanny Miss Andrew and the Bird Woman respectively) continue to please.

Richard Eyre and his co-director Matthew Bourne (also choreographer, with Stephen Mear) have tightened up the show since last year, making it slightly shorter and therefore more child-friendly. The production continues to prove that, with such a great team, “Anything Can Happen If You Let It”.

- Caroline Ansdell


Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from December 2004 and this production's original cast.

When I was a girl, I was so beguiled by Mary Poppins that, hoping to emulate her, I sang and danced my way umbrella-clad atop a garden wall until I ‘flew’ off in finale. A badly twisted ankle soon put paid to that practice. Still, all these years on, the mere prospect of this stage adaptation was enough to set my pulse racing again.

The vision of co-producer Cameron Mackintosh (there are a lot of co-‘s in the credits list of this mammoth undertaking) and more than ten years in the planning, this Mary Poppins is based on both the Disney film favourite and the original Pamela Travers’ stories and is brought to life on stage by a creative team of unparalleled talent. The result is a theatrical spectacle that gives Mary back to a new audience with heaped spoonfuls of magic that make the medicine, and a few minor disappointments, go down much easier.

In director Richard Eyre’s fine-tuned and picture-perfect production, some signature moments immediately stand out: Mary’s unpacking of coat-stand/bed/mirror from her empty but bottomless carpetbag (designer Bob Crowley); the sudden colourising of a grey winter day (lighting designer Howard Harrison); a spellbinding twist of dozens of arms and legs in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (choreographer Matthew Bourne, co-choreographer Stephen Mear). And then there are moments of pure delight, none more so than when the chimneysweep knees-up of “Step in Time” sends Gavin Lee’s wiry Bert tap-dancing up the proscenium walls and across the ceiling.

Elsewhere performance-wise, there’s plenty more to savour. In the title role, Laura Michelle Kelly ditches the Julie Andrews’ prototype in favour of a smugger, crosser and, frankly, sexier Mary, who marshals two astoundingly confident child actors as Jane and Michael Banks. (These roles are shared by five sets of girls and boys – on the press night, 13-year-old Charlotte Spencer and Harry Stott, a 9-year-old of scene-stealing cuteness).

Thanks to book writer Julian Fellowes’ new rendering which puts the dysfunctional into family, there are much meatier roles for the children’s parents, too. As Mrs Banks, an ex-actress having difficulty fitting the corporate wife mould, Linzi Hateley both charms and disarms. But of all the family, it’s David Haig’s affection-deprived disciplinarian Mr Banks who takes us on a real emotional journey. His demands for “Precision and Order” lose first bite then bark as he faces redundancy and the return of his own terrorising nanny. Rosemary Ashe plays the latter in a brief but funny appearance, while sterling comic support is also provided by a gruff Jenny Galloway and clumsy Gerard Carey as household servants.

Mary Poppins is certainly too long (particularly for younger members of the audience - though a warning that under-seven's may be too scared seems over-cautious), but, looking back over all three hours of it, it’s impossible to find fault with any aspect of the production. Reinforced by the expanded score in which the known-and-loved Sherman Brothers’ classics – including “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” - are interspersed with new songs care of British writing duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Mackintosh et al have succeeded in creating something that feels familiar yet also freshly minted.

To borrow the title of a tuneful Stiles and Drewe addition, it’s “practically perfect”. And, I'm happy to report, Kelly's Poppins has much more success flying into the eaves of the Prince Edward than I ever had off my garden wall.

- Terri Paddock