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Mary Poppins

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

PRACTICALLY perfect. This is a show that lives up to its billing and more from fabulous sets to wonderful choreography to an orchestra large enough to make a difference – and what a cast.

Zizi Strallen is a very prim and proper Mary Poppins, who never gives explanations incidentally, in the role played by older sister Scarlett in the West End, twice, on Broadway and, for good measure, Sydney. It’s almost a family business.

She has a clear, distinctive voice and an endearing permanent half smile which promises magic, or mischief, at any moment.

And her partner in grime, in this case, is chimney sweep Bert, played by Matt Lee who, incidentally, won the prestigious Helpmann Award for Best Actor in a Musical in his native Australia for his portrayal of the role when the show opened down under in 2010.

Lee keeps up the Dick Van Dyke tradition of giving Bert a cockney accent which is, shall we say, unconventional, more Sydney than Stepney in this case, but he has so much natural charm who cares, and the boy can sing and dance.

The dance sequence for Step in time among the chimBert and Maryney pots on the roofs of London was just a magical highlight with Mary, Bert, the Banks’ children Michael and Jane and twenty chimney sweeps in a whirl of tap.

Bert even manages to dance up and down the walls and along the ceiling with the help of a little mechanical magic.

It was a tribute to not only co-chorographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear but also the stage crew who created a ballet of their own with moving trucks of tiles and pots.

Matt Lee as Bert and Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins with children Jane and Michael. Pictures: Johan Persson

Twelve youngsters rotate the big roles of Michael and Jane with Georgie Hill as Jane on Press night. It was her first professional role apparently, not that you would guess from such an assured performance.

Equally confident was Jabez Cheeseman as Michael, an old stager already at 10 who was last seen in these parts in the tour of The boy in the striped pyjamas.

Milo Twomey is a rather aloof father George Banks who sees his work as much more important than his family, a man who saw his own mother and father about once a week as he grew up thanks to the nanny from Hell, Miss Andrew, played with suitable evil intent by Penelope Woodman.

Little does he know how much his life is going to change!

Fussing around him, and the children, is their mother Winifred played by Rebecca Lock who has a quite lovely voice.

And when it comes to voices Grainne Renihan as the bird woman produces a delightful Feed the birds.

Below stairs we have Mrs Brill, wonderfully played by Wendy Ferguson, who is the cook with a wide range of instant emotions, and the bane of her life, odd-job man Robertson Ay, played with suitable gormlessness by Blair Anderson.

The musical is not a straight adaptation of the 1964 film - you try having a tea party on the ceiling on stage, sunshine – but there is enough there to keep fans happy as well as incorporating material from P L Travers’ original books.

Which brings in Wreh-asha Walton as Mrs Corry and a long, lively, ever faster sequence of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

All the well known songs by Richard and Robert Sherman are there from Chim Chim Cher-ee to A spoonful of sugar along with new songs from George Stile and Anthony Drew and Richard Eyre’s direction along with co-director Matthew Bourne, keeps up a cracking pace.

That s helped of course by Bob Crowley’s fabulous design with huge sets which glide up and down from the heavens, or slide silently in from the wings making major scene changes efficient, fast and seamless.

The stage crew, technical team and flymen also deserve a mention for the smooth operation. It is a big cast, almost 40 and all superb, with a lot of changes and they played their part in making it such an enjoyable evening as much as anyone.

The show has some stunning special effects including the cleverest of the lot the wrecked kitchen, an effect originally devised by legendary illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.

The children and Robertson Ay, in a moment of mayhem icing a cake, manage to bring down shelves, smash a table in two and create pandemonium - all made good again by the appearance of Mary – who even throws in an iced cake for good measure.

Keeping everything moving along is a splendid 12 piece orchestra under Ian Townsend, large by today’s touring standards. No matter what technical wizardry touring shows employ instead of musicians there is nothing quite like the magic of a big, full sound of decent sized band in the pit.

As you would expect Mary Poppins has a flight or two but the final scene is another spectacular as Mary complete with umbrella flies off into . . . who knows where, high above the heads of the audience in stalls and circle to the delight of the children in the audience – and aren’t we all young at heart when a production is practically perfect. To 23-04-16

Roger Clarke

15-03-16

Zizi Strallen talks about her role

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