Words by Simon Button
The jolly holiday season just got a whole lot jollier with the return of Mary Poppins to the London stage.
Flying into the Prince Edward Theatre some 15 years since the show first premiered there, it’s a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious delight that leaves you almost levitating with joy.
Zizi Strallen does a fair bit of levitating herself as the no-nonsense nanny created by author P. L. Travers and made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1964 film - flying across the stage and, at one thrilling point, over the audience and up into the rafters.
But Strallen’s even better when earthbound, her feet pointed outwards ten-to-two style, as she seeks to tame pesky kids Jane and Michael Banks.
Their father is emotionally absent, their mother can’t cope and their latest in a long line of flustered nannies has just walked out. Enter Mary Poppins, who dispenses discipline and life lessons with a spoonful of sugar but also an iron rod.
And Strallen gets that balance absolutely right. She’s not practically perfect, she’s completely and utterly so as she tempers whimsy with a don’t-mess-with-me sternness.
It’s remarkable how her lovely soprano singing voice can suddenly swoop low and forceful and, pulling full-size brushes from tiny paper bags and hatstands from seemingly out of nowhere, she appears tickled pink by her own cleverness.
The stagecraft that makes such objects materialise or broomsticks move on their own or kitchen shelves collapse and then right themselves again is simply stunning.
Then there’s the jaw-on-the-floor moment where Charlie Stemp’s Bert walks horizontally up the side of the proscenium arch, flips upside down to traverse the top of it, then descends on the other side.
Of course he’s on wires but Stemp is such a gifted, athletic performer it wouldn’t be a surprise if somehow he was able to do it without ’em.
A wonderful dancer and loveable comedian, he’s gotten even better since his star-is-born turn in Half A Sixpence and his cockney accent (in sharp contrast to Dick Van Dyke’s in the movie) is as flawless as his feet and hips are dazzlingly nimble.
Stemp has the grace of Fred Astaire and the athleticism of Gene Kelly, and when he leads the company in a brilliantly-choreographed ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ it’s as wonderful as musical theatre ever gets.
Likewise the whole show, which mixes plot points from the books and film with its own inventions.
You might miss the dancing penguins but who cares when you get a stage-load of dancing chimney sweeps and enough magic moments to leave you smiling from ear to ear?
If there’s one show to see this Christmas it’s this one so get yourself a ticket spit spot.
Mary Poppins is at the Prince Edward Theatre, London. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.
Images: Johan Persson