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Mary Poppins (Manchester)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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When Mary Poppins finished its run in the West End last year, many regional theatregoers hoped that Cameron Mackintosh\'s delightful show would go on tour.

Their wish has come true and everyone\'s favourite Nanny is as magical and enchanting as she was on Old Compton Street.

If you have fond memories of the film starring Julie Andrews, then you are in for a treat, as many of the songs including \"A Spoonful Of Sugar\" and \"Chim Chim Cher-ee\" remain. At the same time, if you found the Disney movie slightly too sugary, Mackintosh\'s stage production does have its fair share of dark moments to satisfy even the most ardent non-converts.

The plot remains the same, Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks\' household, determined not only to get the children into \'spit-spot\' shape, but also their long suffering parents. Despite initial resistance, Jane and Michael succomb to the charms of their mischevious and magical Au Pair.

We get to meet Mary\'s friends, including upbeat Chimney sweep Bert, the lonely Birdwoman and the lively Mrs Corry. I say, meet as Bob Crowley\'s superb set, means that you enter another world. You are whisked from the chimney tops, up into bright skies above and back again. Everything is done with such precision and sheer inventiveness, that you remain completely immersed throughout.

The cast are all superb. including the ensemble and swings. Martin Ball brings a real sense of regret as the father unable to relate to his neglected children. Likewise Louise Bowden enables you to empathise with his wife\'s empty existance, in spite of the Banks\' wealth.

Isabella Sedgwick and William Pearce played the Banks\' children on the night I attended and they both exude charm. I also loved Valda Aviks\' poignant cameo as the Birdwoman and Tania Mathurin\'s energetic, thigh slapping turn as Mrs Corry.

As for the leads, Daniel Crossley\'s Bert is cheeky and charming and in one scene, whereby he literally reaches the dizzy heights of the Palace Theatre, the actor is both brave and breathtaking.

Lisa O\'Hare brings a different spin to Mary; she is more mischevious and glides across the stage with a real glint in her eye and her vocals are simply superb.

Julian Fellowes\' additions to the original book add more wit and a touch of darkness, which works wonderfully. Anthony Drewe\'s new songs do not take anything away from the original material and the connection is seamless. And fans of Matthew Bourne are in for a real treat as his highly original choreography brings energy and vitality to an already practically perfect production.

Some scenes such as \"Temper Temper\" may be too scary for toddlers, but that aside, this is a first class family show, full of surprises, rendering it a must-see piece of theatre.

See Mary Poppins before she leaves the Palace in March, because if the first night standing ovations are anything to go by, tickets will be flying out of there faster than the super-nanny herself!

-Glenn Meads

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


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