Sitting in the Wales Millennium Centre awaiting ‘curtain-up’ at Mary Poppins, I felt slightly sorry for the cast and production crew, at the huge task they faced in trying to impress the likes of me. Not a huge fan of musical theatre at the best of times, somewhat taken aback at the eye-watering cost of taking a family of four to the theatre at Christmas, and yet at the same time harbouring high expectations of being transported to a bright, magical world far away from Brexit, the state of the NHS and all the other gloomy headlines…..I was not disappointed.
As the curtain rose I felt my hackles rise slightly as the hubbub of the audience took too long to die down, but thankfully the volume and energy of the production soon drowned-out the residual noise and fidgeting of the younger audience.
What followed was a fast-paced, re-invention of the story that we know and love, interspersed with just the right mix of slick ‘magic tricks’ (pulling the hat stand out of the carpet bag, sliding up the banisters and making pictures come to life) and all the big songs you’d expect from this production. I was surprised at how different the story and structure was from the original film version, but this did not diminish the production at all – in fact it made it easier to watch for those of us that are very familiar with the dialogue of the iconic film.
The children, though ‘ringleted’ and clad in sailor dress and tank-top respectively, had a bit more attitude than I remember from the film, but I have no doubt this helped to make them more relatable to a modern audience, and helped make the whole thing a little less saccharine than I was expecting. The same could be said for Mary herself – though Zizi Strallen was every inch Mary Poppins from her clipped, received pronunciation to her turned-out toes.
I’m still not sure how Mary actually appeared on the stage, since we were distracted (not for the last time) by the creative use of lighting above the audience, so when our eyes returned to the stage – there she stood, perfectly poised.
The set was totally in-keeping with expectations of the house in Cherry Tree Lane (like the doll’s house you dreamed of as a girl but only collectors actually own), the colourful park and contrasting austere, greyness of the bank, and scene changes were slicker than other big budget productions I’ve seen in the West End. The pace and juxtaposition of the monochromatic scenes in London and the bank versus the vibrant colour of the park and the house scenes worked well at holding the attention of even the youngest audience members, and kept-up the momentum of the story.
I was amused to note that the ‘pre-teen’ beside me, pointed out every wire on the kites, and each cable used by Mary and Bert for their gravity-defying moves to her mother, but considering the challenges of staging this musical, it was actually gratifying that these were the only little bits of ‘reality’ she appeared to spot through-out the evening.
All-in-all it was the visual feast that I’d hoped for and it seems that the big budget really does buy you quality in everything from talent to sound, and costume to lighting. It is hard to pick out individual performances or highlights because the whole production worked seamlessly to create a theatre-going ‘experience’, where all the cogs meshed perfectly in a well-oiled machine. I went to see the production with my ‘Mum hat’ on wondering what my 6 and 10 year old nephews (and eventually my own child when he’s old enough) would make of it – would it be too ‘girly’ and surely there would be a very narrow window of opportunity when a child was old enough to sit through it, but not too old to dismiss it as ‘babyish’ or ‘uncool’? As I reflect on my experience, I know that my nephews would have been transfixed, and I would be so bold as to suggest that my husband would have enjoyed it too; the polished performance absolutely transported me to another world for a couple of hours so I concluded that it would be worth saving up for this as a special family treat at Christmas, and I might even give a few more popular musicals a try.