REVIEW: Mary Poppins – The Musical

It’s been thirteen years since Mary Poppins and her umbrella and her magic bag (that holds things that are impossibly big for it) landed on stage in Melbourne. It’s the same production that first debuted on the West End in 2004, inspired by the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews – including classic songs by the Sherman Brothers (like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds”) along with a number of new songs by Anthony Drewe.

If you don’t know the original story, I’m sad that you’ve been deprived of Mary Poppins all your life. Go watch the film and then come back!

Do you still have Supercalifrafilisticexpialidocious stuck in your head? Okay then, we’re right to go.

The Disney Theatrical version, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, uses a storybook motif in the sets, transforming cold grey London streetscapes into magical colour interiors and exteriors once the titular nanny arrives to help the Banks family.

Stephanie Jones brings the right mix of blunt and wickedly funny to the role of Mary, while Jack Chambers’ Bert is charming and flirtatious, acting as a kind of narrator – and later stealing the show during the “Step in Time” sequence, a thrilling exhibition of furious tap dancing. Astonishing.

Marina Prior, who played Mrs Banks back in 2010, has been shifted to the roles of Bird Woman and Miss Andrew – which have previously been roles for two different performers, but it totally makes sense as a shared role. Prior brings the right about of melancholy to “Feed the Birds” and completely wicked performing the show-stopping “Brimstone and Treacle”.

It’s respectful of the original film but mines P.L. Travers’ books for inspiration in expanding the narrative and adding in new songs and adventures. For a Disney production, it doesn’t feel as saccharine as it might have – big blockbuster musicals have a habit of sanding off the darker edges but this Mary is as mercurial as Travers’ original.

There is a true magic in watching this show come to life on stage, because theatrical trickery can make you believe a woman can fly and do all sorts of sleight-of-hand on her way to redeeming Mr Banks from being an unfeeling workaholic.

It’s a practically perfect theatre experience for the whole family, unless you’re sitting at the back of the stalls in Her Majesty’s – much of which is considered “restricted view”. Cheaper seating ($60 in the last two rows, $90 for the next three) helps to make the show more affordable but paying $120+ will allow you to see the whole show.

From the cheap-seat disadvantaged-point, patrons will see about a third of the stage because of the Dress Circle overhang and may be further blocked by structural supports. Much of Mary Poppins is designed with height in mind – the main character can fly, after all. There is a sequence where Mary, Bert and the children are on the roof of the house which plays to this part of the theatre as barely-seen feet.

The end of Act One and Two are both entirely obscured and while in the context of the show, it’s easy to understand what has happened, the audience at the back is robbed of the emotional catharsis. And the final thrilling bit of theatre magic. A real shame.

If you can afford to pay to see the whole show, it’s probably worth it.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Mary Poppins is playing in Melbourne for a strictly limited season before touring to Adelaide in July. 

Photos: Daniel Boud