Mary Poppins

Based on the stories of P L Travers, with original music & Lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman and book by Julian Fellowes
New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Palace Theatre, Manchester
(2008)

Rather than a pantomime, Manchester's Palace Theatre this Christmas presents the spectacular Cameron Mackintosh production of Mary Poppins, here for a three-month residency.

The musical has been created from piecing together elements from the well-loved 1964 Disney film and other material from the original children's novels by P L Travers, with some well-known songs adapted from the film and others that are brand new. Julian Fellowes' adaptation fleshes out the characters and the story more than the film and gives the characters, particularly the adults, a stronger emotional base. The most famous songs by the Sherman brothers are still here, and the changes and new songs by British songwriters Stiles and Drewe integrate extremely well with the originals with some sparkling and witty new lyrics, although just occasionally the score has touches of a more modern Wicked-style musical sound.

The story, if anyone doesn't know it, is set in a late Victorian or Edwardian middle class family which has gone through a succession of nannies due to the bad behaviour of the two children, Jane and Michael Banks. Suddenly, Mary Poppins appears (literally) in their life, a nanny with very different methods and, it seems, some magical powers. While she is still as upright and emotionally detached as her predecessors, her unusual methods, such as to use reward as well as punishment to teach the children how to behave, bear fruit, teaching the adults how to behave towards the children as well as the other way around.

For anyone used to seeing touring productions of West End shows with inexperienced casts and cut-down scenery, effects and even scripts, this is a whole different world. In fact it is the nearest anyone could probably get to staging a full-blown West End musical outside London for just a three-month run. This is just about the most spectacular family musical production Manchester has seen for years.

Lisa O'Hare plays the title role very much in the Julie Andrews mould, with her cut-glass English accent and her precise diction and deportment, but she still makes the part her own and shows off a wonderful singing voice. Daniel Crossley plays Bert, who sometimes acts as narrator, as a jokey, friendly cockney with bags of charisma. Martin Ball is just perfect as the straight-laced, order-obsessed and emotionally detached father of Jane and Michael, who probably learns the greatest lesson and effects the biggest transformation of all of the characters in the show. He is supported extremely well by Louise Bowden as his wife, torn between her duty to her husband and her affection for her children.

The other members of the company all play smaller parts, each performed better than the main roles in some touring musicals, and execute Matthew Bourne's wonderfully distinctive and quirky ensemble direction and choreography with breathtaking precision.

For the children's parts, the producers have not been frightened of turning Jane and Michael into substantial roles with lots of dialogue, singing and dancing instead of just using them as decoration and giving them the odd line. They are played by an army of children from around the country on different nights, but if they are all as good as eleven-year-old Isabella Sedgwick as bossy Jane and eight-year-old William Pearce as mischievous and cheeky Michael at the reviewed performance, this is a group of very talented and well-rehearsed children whose performances are in no way overshadowed by or secondary to those of the adults.

All of this is performed on Bob Crowley's wonderfully imaginative and spectacular set. The Banks's house opens out like a pop-up book; the park explodes into colour; Mrs Corry's shop unfolds like a beach windbreaker into a mass of colour and people; the monochromatic bank distorts perspective to make the pillars and dome seem terrifyingly intimidating. Integrated superbly into this are some magic effects from illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer that draw out the story and the atmosphere without drawing attention to themselves. There are many real showstoppers where songs, design, choreography and performance come together perfectly, including Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Step In Time and the beautiful kite flying sequence.

Technically, the production achieves something that is extremely rare at the Palace: a rich, clear and well-balanced sound where every word and note is clear and distinct. Mary Poppins does fly, and for the ending there is a really impressive additional twist to her flight that is rarely carried through to a touring production and which is breathtaking to witness. Bert also gets his moment of flight, as he tap-dances up the proscenium arch, across the top and down the other side.

This is a perfect a musical production as you could hope to see, with a great book and score and the production values and calibre of production team and performer that you would normally expect only in a top London production. It is hard to believe that this is from the same producer that brought The Witches of Eastwick to Manchester just a couple of months ago. Although perhaps not suitable for the very young, if you're looking for a show for all the family, there is nothing better in this area than Mary Poppins, and hasn't been for a long, long time.

Running to to 7th March, 2009

Reviewer: David Chadderton