Review: MARY POPPINS at Adelaide Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

A fair wind has blown Mary Poppins into Adelaide.

By: Jul. 06, 2023
Review: MARY POPPINS at Adelaide Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Wednesday 5th July 2023.

That magical nanny, Mary Poppins, the creation of Australian author, P. L Travers, has come to Adelaide. First appearing in a 1926 short story, Mary Poppins featured in a series of novels. The 1964 film was adapted from the first book, from 1934, and this musical was adapted from both the books and the film. With Disney and Cameron Mackintosh behind it, this was always going to be a spectacular production. It opened in the West End in 2004, so Adelaide fans have had a long wait to see this musical.

Travers was not happy with Walt Disney’s interpretation. He added more than one spoonful of sugar to the character depicted in her book. She hated the child-friendly version of Mary Poppins, the mix of animation and live action, and she especially hated it being made into a musical. She refused ever to work with him again. The film, Saving Mr. Banks, tells of her unhappy childhood in Queensland and depicts their time together as Disney tried to negotiate the rights to produce the film. That film, too, of course, showed Disney in a favourable light and made Travers appear to be the difficult one. It took Disney twenty years to get her to sell the film rights, and she only did so then because she needed the money. The austere, aloof character of Mr. Banks was derived from her father, Travers Goff, and Mary Shepard’s illustrations of Mary Poppins were based on a wooden peg doll that Travers had as a child.

This production, with a book by Julian Fellowes, has songs from the film, in new arrangements by William d Brohn, with dance and vocal arrangements by George Stiles, and adds new scenes, and songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drew, as well as much more dancing. Bert has a larger role, as does Mrs. Banks, and Mrs. Corry appears, but doesn’t snap off her barley sugar fingers as little treats, as she does in the book. There are plenty of illusions during the evening, some which any magicians in the audience will recognise, and some theatrical tricks, the most notable of which is when Bert walks up one side of the proscenium arch, tap dances upside down across the top, then walks down the other side. Mary’s final flight also impressed the audience.

The home of the Banks family opens like a gigantic dolls house, revealing the elaborate interior. George’s domain is defined by his desk, set to one side. The entire structure rotates to expose the kitchen where Mrs Brill bustles about, hampered by the houseboy, Robertson Ay. The children create havoc in the kitchen, and Mary Poppins magically puts all to rights. The often-animated set is a star in its own right. Other sets are flown or trucked in remotely, swiftly creating a wide range of locations, from the children’s room, to the rooftops, to the park, to the Fiduciary Fidelity Bank where George works, and more. The lighting and projections add a great deal, too, in this visual treat, and the costuming is marvellous.

The children are unruly, father is distant, and mother is given little recognition. Another in a string of nannies has left. It’s a highly dysfunctional family. When the Banks children write their list of requirements for a new nanny, their father throws it on the fire. It is Mary Poppins who flies in on the wind, with that restored piece of paper in hand, ready to take up residence at number seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, the home of George and Winifred, and their children, Michael and Jane.

We meet the family in a state of chaos, George Banks played by Tom Wren, his wife, Winifred, played by Lucy Maunder, and their two children, Jane and Michael, who are played at different performances by several young performers. On the opening night, the roles were taken by Sophie Isaac and Reuben Koronczyk.

Wren’s George Banks is suitably austere, uncaring, and abrupt at the start, a product of his own heavy-handed nanny Andrew, and uncaring parents. His gradual transition, and ultimate embracing of life and family, is a performance filled with charm.

Maunder takes on the three-dimensional reinterpretation of Winifred Banks, an actress who gave up a career for marriage and motherhood. There is great warmth in her performance, showing Winifred’s love and care for her husband and children, seeing the best in them.

Isaac and Koronczyk are absolutely delightful as Jane and Michael, and give performances right up there with their more senior cast members.

Stefanie Jones is wonderful as Mary Poppins, bringing out that mix of vanity and no-nonsense approach of the character in the books, offset for the children by her many magical outings. She sings beautifully, and is a phenomenal dancer, as well as getting right inside the spirit of her character. The audience, of course, loved her Mary Poppins.

Bert is played by Jack Chambers, who is a powerful bundle of energy, singing up a storm and dancing with great enthusiasm, as well as acting a little like a Greek chorus. Thankfully, too, his accent is not as appallingly bad as that of Dick Van Dyke in the film.

Helen Walsh, as Mrs Brill, and Gareth Isaac, as Robertson Ay, are a great comic duo, bouncing off one another to bring much needed hilarity to lighten the more serious moments. The Bird Woman is played with subtlety by Patti Newton, who filled the song, Feed the Birds, with tenderness. Chelsea Plumley storms in as the bombastic Miss Andrew, and Cherine Peck is a powerhouse as Mrs. Corry.

All of the minor characters give strong performances, as do the ensemble. The production numbers are sensational and delivered with incredible precision. The orchestra, under musical director, Geoffrey Castles, is superb.

The audience was on its feet the moment that the curtain rose for the bows, and the standing ovation continued until it fell again, and the house lights came on.


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