This play in a single moment: The first kiss of a father on his 12-year-old daughter’s forehead.
Criticising this play is like battering an already wounded squirrel on a tray to death. The fact is that Mary Poppins will be a box-office draw whether it is any good or not, as people love a covers band. This is Mary Poppins given a weird shine-over by the 21st Century, with elements of it still locked in the Victorian era the original books portrayed. This is a world where chimney-sweeps do achingly inevitable Stomp-style breakdowns in the middle of traditional dance routines, beating on chimney-stacks like bongos; where there is a Jamaican woman selling words in a tent; but where jubilation is still felt at a German bank being fucked over and where Southerners are happy because those factories they bought in the North are making them a lot of money.
And yet, Mary Poppins is still interesting because of that disgusting element that musical theatre would die without – enthusiasm. There are a lot of teeth on display here, many of which belong to Gavin Lee, very good as Bert without ever being Dick Van Dyke.
The film hangs heavy over the play. When a scene from the film is replicated, you compare it to the scene from the film. When one of the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, so handily-asterisked in the programme, appears, you note that “Ah, this is a new song, which wasn’t in the film. This is probably why it is a little wordier.” To reuse a comparison, watching the play is a bit like watching a Beatles covers band who are all playing Gibson Flying V guitars. You’re probably having a good time, but it’s just different.
And then there’s the problem of the plot. In that there isn’t one. I just challenged my housemate and her boyfriend to remember the plot of Mary Poppins, and she admitted that she could only remember the first half-hour, and he mumbled “something about the kid’s dad, isn’t it?” Yes, incidentally, it is. It’s about George Banks leaving aside his old ways and discovering the love of his family. In my view, the rest of the narrative amounts to subplots. The show’s new book and songs attempt to give George Banks more to do, and David Haig is pretty good (although he isn’t as good as the AWESOME David Tomlinson), but the play still seems to happen sort of incidentally to the famous songs and the flying effects. I guess that’s quite “musical theatre”, innit?
Ah yes, but that’s what we go to musicals for! Shit moving about the stage in an impressive way! Here we have an entire house, a nursery, Bert climbing the walls, Mary flying all over the place, some rather natty spangly jackets, and the constant fear of an actor falling from a great height. This is, of course, all amazing fun. Even the fear of an actor falling from a great height. All of this is done with lovely panache, and is quite pleasant to watch. If I say Laura Michelle Kelly is excellent when suspended from the ceiling, I mean it as a compliment. The choreography picked up, as well… Matthew Bourne (for it is he, the slag) taking his time in the first half with some weird little dance bits, before going for it a bit more in the second half, convincingly redoing the sweeps dance without it being too much of a retarded copy of the film. Apart from the Stomp bit. Which was retarded.
Fundamentally, though, people will go to this play, paying shitloads of money, so they can recognise the famous songs, wistfully reminisce about the first time they saw the film, take the kids, and wallow in plebjoy. Therefore, the question is: Can simple nostalgia keep the run of this show alive?
The answer is: Yes.