Review of Mary Poppins

17th December 2004



David Benedict, Jane Edwardes and Mark Shenton love every minute of the long-awaited Poppins premiere, the final big musical opening of the season. Matt Wolf hosts.

It could have been an absolute disaster, but instead it’s just so fantastically fluid and fluent.



Critics David Benedict, Jane Edwardes and Mark Shenton love every minute of the long-awaited Mary Poppins premiere, the final big musical opening of the season. Matt Wolfhosts.

Recording Date: 17 December 2004

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is MARY POPPINS and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.

Matt Wolf: Hello and welcome to theatreVOICE and this afternoon’s discussion of Mary Poppins, the stage musical of the Disney film, which finally set down this week at the Prince Edward theatre. The very same week, synergistically the 40th anniversary DVD of Julie Andrews’s movie has been released. This has of course been a busy autumn for West End musicals, with Poppins being the last of the big three, following on from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White in September and the transfer from Broadway of The Producers last month. What does this show have that the others do not? An immaculate sense of timing for one: it’s a tale of an air-born nanny, the same day that David Blunkett departed his job as Home Secretary due to some apparent misconduct, involving visa applications for, you guessed it, a nanny. It is also the only one of the three big musicals to hoist its leading lady, Laura Michelle Kelly’s Mary Poppins, up to the balcony in time for the curtain call — having earlier sent Gavin Lee’s character, Bert, up and around the perimeter of the theatre’s proscenium arch, in a gravity defying dance, courtesy of choreographers Matthew Bourne and Steven Mear. Off stage Mary Poppins makes history as the first ever collaboration between two producing titans; Thomas Schumacher’s Disney Theatricals, begetter of such musical franchises as The Lion King, and Britain’s own Cameron Mackintosh, the impresario whose last international smash hit was Miss Saigon in 1989.

Here with me to discuss what these two theatrical forces have wrought and whether or not Mary Poppins does soar “up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear” are the critics David BenedictMark Shenton and Jane Edwardes. Mark, Mary Poppins has taken a long time in happening, not least because Disney own the rights, of course, to the movie and the songs, but Cameron Mackintosh owns the rights to the literary a source material, from PL Travers, Pamela Travers, who is of course now no longer living, was it worth the wait?

Mark Shenton: It has been a long wait, in fact 40 years exactly since the film was released and much longer since the books were written. I think basically its well worth the wait because it does work as a piece of theatre. They have gone completely back to the books and the film, and created something new out of both of them. I think the parts may be bigger than the whole. Individually, moment to moment there are some great things happening. It doesn’t quite bind together but that may yet come.

Matt WolfDavid Benedict, of course one of the things that people always wonder when they see these stage musicals of famous films, is does it replicate the film? Is it the film on stage? The Lion King isn’t in some ways; The Producers is an hour longer than it is on film. What’s your sense of how this relates to the film?

David Benedict: I think that without wishing to use the fly analogy to much, it’s a real high wire act, if you take something so well loved like Mary Poppins, which as far as Disney is concerned is the jewel in their live action crown. You take something like that which people have seen countless times, the director, the producing team, have got this juggling act whereby they stick really close to it and then risk not being quite as good, or you move away from it, at which people go, “It’s not like the film.” I think the triumph of this production is that it manages to, as Mark just said, it goes back to the PL Travers books, extracts what it wants from them, quietly bins some of the weak songs of the movie, and let’s not get to rosy about that movie, there are some terrible moments in that movie.

Mark Shenton: ‘Sister Suffragette’.

David Benedict: Indeed, and those are gone. I think it is a very old-fashioned piece of entertainment, in the way it has been wrought. It feels on a human scale; there may be lots of flying on wires and this, that and the other, but it feels like a warm-hearted human-scale piece of work and almost for that reason alone I applaud it. I do think it’s very successful piece.

Matt Wolf: Also a piece of work, Jane, that draws from many different influences very different sorts of influences and cultural quarters. You’ve got a director, Richard Eyre, from the subsidised theatre essentially. You’ve got a book writer Julian Fellows, who won an Oscar for Gosford Park. You’ve got two new song writers, providing new songs, George Styles and Anthony Drew, who have been writing together for 25 years but have never been on in the West End. How do all these talents mesh?

Jane Edwardes: Well, I think that, absolutely not liking the film and having a very strong passion as a child for the stories, I think that the quality here that particularly Fellows and Eyre have brought to it is that they have knitted a very strong story, actually. A story that is, I mean admittedly I was with a child so partly seeing it through her eyes, even so I felt that I had gone with a friend I would of still got a lot from it. And I felt that you had that intelligence that Richard Eyre has brought to it, so that you follow the psychology and there are no real weaknesses, you have the wit of Julian Fellows and the Styles and Drew songs. ‘Practically Perfect’ I think is great. Most of them were serviceable rather then outstanding. But also David was mentioning The Lion King you know, their trouble there was that you get the Rice and Elton John songs just sticking out and just not fitting in with the rest. And here the way they played with the film songs they have made them feel as though they are apart of the organic whole.

Matt Wolf: Right, so you’re not saying that that is from this corner and that was the other?

Jane Edwardes: No, not at all.

Matt Wolf: David, Jane was talking about Richard Eyre: his musical track record is interesting, this famous production of Guys and Dolls, which was famous in 1982, famous again in 1996 and then a rather infamous West End High Society in 1987, with Natasha Richardson — so not necessarily the most obvious choice to do this. Did he deliver?

David Benedict: I think he absolutely did deliver, whether it’s Cameron Mackintosh, Tom Schumacher and Richard Eyre, somebody or some bodies have put together a virtually ideal production team and interestingly it looked like a recipe for disaster, all the jobs are split in two. So you’ve got the Sherman brothers songs and the Styles and Drewe songs. You’ve got Matthew Bourne as co-director and choreographer and Steven Mear as co-choreographer; I mean it could have been an absolute disaster. And it’s fantastically fluid and fluent. I’m sure, I’m willing to lay money that the tap-work in ‘Step in Time’. which is this huge wonderful production number in act two, the tap work would have to be Steven Mear because that’s not in Matthew Bourne’s vocabulary. On the other hand, I suspect, that in every other respect, it’s all been dovetailed; they have all sat in on each other’s rehearsals quite genuinely and have all contributed to each other’s work and as a result, there is, it just has this extraordinary infectious spirit because you can feel that everybody is working at the top of their bent. It’s a really satisfying piece of theatre. I was there with a lighting designer, you know, no kids in our row, and I cried and I laughed and I gasped, which is pretty much what you want from a musical, and I certainly didn’t cry during The Producers, because The Producers is brilliant but it has no heart.

Mark Shenton: Cried of laughter perhaps!

David Benedict: This has heart.

Matt Wolf: Actually I did cry during The Producers. I thought Lee Evans did bring heart to it, but Mark the interesting thing about this is there are no stars in it; the star is obviously the title. And so you know the question is, do performers become the stars?

Mark Shenton: The stars are being made, absolutely. One important part of billing that you left out of your role call there David, was of course the “co-created by Cameron Mackintosh”. He’s not just the producer, he has taken a creative credit on this. And has definitely; I think he has knitted the whole thing together somehow.

Jane Edwardes: But it doesn’t have those twee Cameron Mackintosh moments; you know when he has to put the costermonger in Oliver!, and things like that.

Mark Shenton: But he’s very famous for meddling with his shows.

David Benedict: I think — I suspect — that Cameron got his fingers burnt on The Witches of Eastwick. He took a piece that was pretty much his idea to do, installed a weak director and sat in rehearsals; I was there, I saw them do it; Cameron was sitting there putting buttons on numbers. He was able to do that because he had a director who respected Cameron, too much possibly, and had given him this wonderful break. He’s not going to do that, Cameron is not going to do that with Richard Eyre. Richard Eyre is too formidable a talent, for Cameron to meddle in the same way and I suspect that collaboration was therefore a lot truer, and allowed, everybody was allowed to bring to the production that which they needed to do. I mean you have also got Bob Crowley, who has done some fantastic work in the past, and also some less than fantastic work, clearly everybody’s been supported and you get a wonderful, wonderful production design.

Matt Wolf: Bob Crowley seems to be at his absolute best actually when employed by Disney: he did these wonderful Tony-winning sets for Aida on Broadway, one of the Disney shows that have not come to London.

Mark Shenton: The best thing in that show, in fact.

Matt Wolf: Yeah, I think his work here is really gorgeous, particularly when they go to the bank, and there are these wonderful sort of columns that look like they have come from Shock-headed Peter.

David Benedict: With those perspectives that he does interestingly…

Matt Wolf: At the risk of playing devil’s advocate with all of you for a bit, I would suggest the show was very, very good but it isn’t quite perfect. I mean I thought it was too long, and that Miss Andrew was a blatant attempt at giving the show a pantomime baddie, like something out of the child catcher.

Mark Shenton: The Rosemary Anne part that she normally plays, she played the same character in The Witches of Eastwick.

Matt Wolf: The ‘Temper, Temper’ number I don’t think works at all, and I do think it gets a bit treacly at the end, with these messages like “anything can happen if you let it.” Well yes, that’s how George W Bush became president.

Matt Wolf: I mean I’m not quite sure that’s the uplift, that it thinks it is.

David Benedict: That number is staged so brilliantly…

Matt Wolf: It is staged beautifully, but I do think the show is resisting sentimentality, it says it is resisting sentimentality. But it still succumbs to it.

Jane Edwardes: It does but it has sort of emotional core, and you’ve been on the journey so you don’t feel that you’re being milked to cry. You feel especially because David Haigh is so good as Mr Banks, so you’ve, you’ve gone along with him, and so I think you kind of earn those tears.

Matt Wolf: Did you cry Jane?

Jane Edwardes: A little misted up!

Mark Shenton: But I still found it quite old-fashioned in parts, and staging and particularly the use of front cloths to move between scenes.

Jane Edwardes: Yes, but wasn’t that great?

David Benedict: Absolutely, it was, “Oh there was a reason people used front cloths like that”, and because of the wit again of design. Because you’ve got Gavin Lee, who we have not mentioned standing in front of them, acting as a narrator, so that Bert, the Dick Van Dyke character from the movie, sort of binds all of it together. He’s standing in front of these what look like sort of monotype beautiful drawings, number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, so those front cloth scenes have enormous charm. They then lift up to reveal this huge house, which is almost like a giant doll’s house, that everybody lives in, and I do think although one could perhaps quibble over the number of design styles that Crowley is using there, there’s the monotype, there’s the sketchiness of the trees in the park, which I think is incredibly beautiful, there’s the bank scene, there are lots and lots of different styles but somehow it does all work.

Matt Wolf: And the set is wonderfully witty as well; it is not often you describe a set as witty, and, you know, not to mention amazingly transformative; there’s a kitchen that falls apart and then rights itself. We mustn’t forget Jenny Galloway, who I thought was brilliant in one of her turns. We haven’t said very much about the principal roles, Gavin lee, and Laura Michelle Kelly, what did you think Mark?

Mark Shenton: Laura Michelle Kelly is a lady some of us have been following and she’s only 23 now but we have been following her for quite a few years. I mean she was the last Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady; she was also in Mamma Mia! some years ago and she’s a real terrific talent. She seems to have it all: she can sing beautifully, and that’s the key quality I think, but also she is a really charming actress. I thought she was absolutely lovely.

David Benedict: The knockout for me though was Bert, who probably alas will not win a single award, because it’s a fantastic un-showy performance; he is so relaxed. Basically you can’t act charm. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. It’s like playing a romantic lead, either come on and people want to fall in love with you or give up and go home. And he absolutely has that, he smiles and you say, “Yeah I can buy that.” You look completely happy; you never get a sense of an emotion being forced with him. He dances like a dream, it’s completely relaxed and as a result you feel the whole audience leaning in to watch him.

Matt Wolf: He’s not too winsome either.

David Benedict: No, he’s not over-playing his hand, so when he starts dancing around the proscenium arch, and dancing on the ceiling you just think, “That is so beguiling.” Of course, I can see how it’s done, of course it’s all done on wires, but it doesn’t matter, you still, you still revel in it.

Mark Shenton: Well, that is one of the showiest moments of the year; even though we say it’s a non-showy part that absolutely is, I mean one thing in defence of Witches, that we were talking about earlier, I did think that the flying at the end of Witches was much more emotionally effective then the flying we get at the end.

Jane Edwardes: It was a bit static wasn’t it?

Matt Wolf: Very stately, almost like a statue.

Mark Shenton: What’s interesting that she doesn’t engage with the audience at that point, she’s just elevated, where as the Witches actually chattered with the audience.

Matt Wolf: Of course it’s so different because her function is finished; she’s going on to the next damaged house, which is interesting.

Jane Edwardes: I do have grave reservations about Kelly, that was my one disappointment. I felt she didn’t have either enough tartness, or enough mystery really. I really felt that she wasn’t as saccharin as one feared, but I felt that she was a bit too sweet for this part.

Matt Wolf: Some people found her to be a bit mechanical?

Jane Edwardes: Yes, Mary Poppins is described like as a doll, but she is a doll, that you don’t quite know is going on in her head. I thought, there were better people who could have done this.

David Benedict: I think the really instructive comparison for this though is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I mean okay, it is worse material but no one is going to stand up and say Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a great children’s film, it may be beloved by the generation that caught it at the right age. But actually the production of that is unaccountably still running in the Palladium is so mechanical, it so apes the film. The changes that have been made feel warped and difficult; the actual physical story telling of the plot is so inept in my view that this is just simply in a different league. I suspect if you watched them back to back you would come out, open mouthed in astonishment at the skill with which Richard Eyre and company have pulled this show together.

Matt Wolf: Yes I mean, I think you can tell Richard, that this is a director who is used to the combination of the epic and intimate, which of course you would if you had directed the Guys and Dolls on the Olivier stage, several times, and of course you are playing a nearly 1700-seat theatre, but it none the less, the book scenes have a domestic detail to them, which I think bears his imprint.

Jane Edwardes: But of course it’s so much his territory as well isn’t it so much the English repression…

Matt Wolf: He very specifically fathers, because you know he has said and written about his vexed relationship with his father.

Jane Edwardes: I don’t know if they were very similar to each other!

Mark Shenton: Dysfunctional families for sure.

Jane Edwardes: Absolutely, very dysfunctional, and class, is also such a big thing in so many of the productions that he’s directed, whether at the National or elsewhere, you felt he was the right man for this job.

Matt Wolf: Well, I guess we are running out of time, but since this is the end of the big three of these musical behemoths of this autumn, maybe we should all just plump for our favourite of the big three. Mark?

Mark Shenton: I’m going to choose The Producers because that’s a very theatrical piece, about making musicals and I love musicals, so therefore I am choosing the musicals.

David Benedict: I hate, and I think it’s really unfair, to make a choice but I suppose I do remember seeing The Producers first in Broadway and thinking I’d died and gone to heaven. So I suppose it would have to be that.

Jane Edwardes: I think I would go for Mary Poppins because of the strength of the story.

Matt Wolf: I would go for The Producers, but we can’t be practically perfect every time, but thank you very much Mark ShentonDavid Benedict and Jane Edwardes.