Monday, 7 January 2008

REVIEW: "Mary Poppins"

She may be practically perfect in every way, but the stage adaptation hybridising P. L. Travers’ original novels and the subsequent Walt Disney film is merely mediocre. Coming to the end of a three-year run, the RZ took a last minute look at this trans-atlantic family fare, leading to what he hopes is a more grown up month of theatrical excursions.

By now, the general plot should be known to every child in the UK and US, and will not be dealt with here. Suffice to say, all the big points from the movie are here, though most have been reworked to the constrictions of the stage. Additionally, new material has been brought in from the novels to counter the syrupy aspects of the film at the request of the Travers estate, and these scenes are what the RZ found most enjoyable. By adding a darker presence, the show is more tolerable to mum and dad, and adds a fright factor which (especially American) children have been far too shielded from in recent years. There’s also something that’s just so right about seeing a character embodied with everything good banishing an evil nanny to hell.

Cast-wise, Scarlett Strallen plays the title character with an appropriately dry wit and a pleasant voice. Gavin Creel has been with the show for what seems like ages, but it was a pleasure to see him still having fun onstage as Bert. The RZ is unsure of which pair of children he got (three sets share performances), but they were thoroughly irritating, even after the script calls for them to be less so. As for the remainder, the RZ could feel the combination of impending unemployment, boredom, and empathy all the way up in the balcony (Grand Circle). This is not to say that the cast were slack - far from it - but there was no energy coming from the stage in most of the numbers (the big exception being Step In Time).

The songs, a wonderful set of tunes from the Sherman Brothers and augmented by new works from Stiles and Drewe, blend old and new together wonderfully, and any youngsters (or sheltered adults) hearing the songs for the first time would be hard pressed to assign ownership. The new book, as mentioned above, adds a new depth to the situation, but it lacks punch and carries the slight boredom many associate with a good night at the theatre. The Victorian morals and archetypes present in the original survived the adaptation process, as though the idea of Mrs. Banks raising the children herself was revolutionary.

Despite all this negativity, praise must be lavished upon Bob Crowley and Howard Harrison for the brilliantly modular house and cityscape sets and mood lighting, respectively. Likewise, Andrew Bruce’s sound work was top notch and the RZ could hear every word clearly from his seat - a rarity for West End musicals these days.

Overall, Mary Poppins does what it says on the tin: it provides a safe show for a child’s first West End outing, resurrects the bits we love, and showers us with a touch of Disney magic. Unfortunately, it’s so by-the-numbers that one leaves feeling entertained but not excited or enthralled. Jersey Boys can't come soon enough.

Where: Prince Edward Theatre London, New Amsterdam Theatre NYC
When: M, W-Sa 19:30, Tu 19:00, Th/Sa 14:30 until 12 Jan.
How Much: £15-£49
Concessions: Children go half price Tuesdays/Wednesdays, student tickets available if sales that day are bad. The RZ couldn’t get a student ticket the night he went.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20
RZ Other Notes: £25 will get slightly restricted view or furthest back seats possible, but they’re enough. The RZ also notes that people in the lower levels get the pleasure of trying to look up Mary's skirt at the end of the show, as is appropriate for a theatre in Soho.

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