Review: Mary Poppins (Prince Edward Theatre)

The iconic musical makes a welcome return to the West End

The cast of Mary Poppins
The cast of Mary Poppins
© Johan Persson

Fifteen years since she first floated across the rooftops of Theatreland, umbrella aloft, feet neatly together, Mary Poppins is back, to bring magic to Christmas and order to a disordered nation… oops, sorry, home. It's very nice to see her.

The real message of Poppins, of course, is not one of discipline and fiscal probity but of love and the power of the imagination. The nanny who arrives in the home of Jane and Michael Banks in response to their letter demanding "you must be kind, you must be pretty" recognises immediately that the problems she encounters (rebellious children, feuding parents) spring from Mr Banks' belief that his only role in life is to pay for everything by working hard at a bank.

In this musical version, co-created by Cameron Mackintosh, with a book by Julian Fellowes, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe supplementing the music by the Sherman Brothers already familiar from the much loved 1964 Disney film, the moral arc of the story is heavily underlined; Banks' redemption occurs when he makes the right, moral decision rather than one that asserts that money is valuable for its own sake. It is less a colourful romp with cartoon characters and more a journey into the human heart.

Not that there's not plenty of colour in Bob Crowley's sets and costumes, which clothe the wasp-waisted Mary (Zizi Strallen) in a luscious selection of tight fitting coats, jaunty Bert (Charlie Stemp) in spangly waistcoats and provides both a psychedelic garden of flowers for the transformed park, and a magnificent, perspective-defying interior of the Bank of England.

Although it often conjures the movie, the stage show undoubtedly has its own tart tone. Its stories – including a slightly tiresome slapstick sequence in the kitchen where Mary fixes all the furniture that has broken when a cake recipe goes wrong – are more closely based on the books by PL Travers than the film. Stiles and Drewe's song are more acerbic and less sugary; "Temper, Temper" that used to terrify children in the audience left the show in 2009, but the equally odd "Playing the Game" still brings scary toys to life.

The musical's best sequences are those that just let rip with joy and wonder. Richard Eyre directs with pace and panache, much helped by the choreography of Matthew Bourne (who is also co-director) and Stephen Mear which use sophisticated dance steps to bring statues to life and raucous, wonderful tap to set the chimney sweeps surging across the stage in "Step in Time". In that sequence Stemp as Bert gets to walk around the proscenium arch, tapping his feet while upside down. It is a highlight, as is Stemp's entire performance. I'd love to have seen more of him; fresh from wowing Broadway opposite Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, he is a remarkable musicals stage presence. He has such natural grace – just in the shape of his arms and the relaxed push of his dancing – and real winning charm.

His sparkle illuminates every scene he is in and he has a gently attractive rapport with Strallen's Mary. Stepping into a part her sister Scarlett has also played, she makes it her own with her wide-open eyes and pert expressions, softening from strict to tender as the show progresses. There's excellent support too from Petula Clark as the Bird Woman (86 years old and striking a blow for ongoing vitality), Amy Griffiths (gently touching as Mrs Banks) and Joseph Millson as the slowly unbending George. On the night I saw the show, Adelaide Barham and Gabriel Payne kept Jane and Michael the right side of cute.

The show is now booking until March 2020. It's hard not to see it settling in for another long run.