By Courtney Leigh Church, December 5, 2019
Based on the books by Pamela Travers and adapted from the 1964 Walt Disney film, “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins” has flown onto the Spriet stage at London’s Grand Theatre.
“Mary Poppins” tells the familiar story of a magical nanny tasked with aiding a fragmented family. The Banks family of number 17 Cherry Tree Lane is in desperate need of help as the two tyrannical children, Jane (Abi Verhaeghe) and Michael (Hayden Baertsoen), have chased yet another nanny away. Their absent father, George Banks (Ben Carlson), is too obsessed with his work at the bank to pay them any attention and their mother, Winifred Banks (Alexis Gordon), is having a difficult time adjusting to her new domestic role as wife and mother. In need of supervision, Jane and Michael compose an advertisement for their ideal nanny, an ad at which George scoffs as he tears up the paper and tosses it in the hearth.
Moments later, Mary Poppins (Deborah Hay) arrives at the door, restored advertisement in hand, ready to take on the difficult task of stitching together this severed family.
On the surface, the Grand’s production of “Mary Poppins” has the makings of an excellent play. Performances across the board are crisp and compassionate, the set transforms magically before your eyes from scene to scene, and the orchestral music is hair-raisingly good. Yet, despite all its strengths, the play instilled in me a nagging sensation that something was not quite right at the core.
What “Mary Poppins” is missing is a story.
The heart of the narrative, Mary Poppins’s positive influence on the Banks family, feels forced and does not extend beyond her charges, Jane and Michael. While she and the children share a few touching moments, the lessons Mary supposedly teaches are often lost in the fanfare of each musical number. Jane and Michael’s growth over the course of the first act is a mere afterthought compared to the excitement of the “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” scenes.
The lack of character development extends to Mr. Banks when faced with the option to invest in the scheme of ambitious aristocrat Herr Von Hussler (Robert Yeretch) or the humble factory project pitched by John Northbrook (Michael Cox). His decision is interrupted by a brief visit from Mary Poppins and the children during which Jane reminds him that people are more important than ideas. What should be a powerful moment between father and daughter amounts to a subtle empathic grimace after he shoos his children out of his office.
Even Mary Poppins herself gives us little to go on. Yes, part of the point is her mysterious tendency to arrive and vanish at the whims of the wind, but her fantastic façade holds both the family and the audience at arm’s length for much of the show. That is not to say that Hays does a poor job with the role – she is marvellously mischievous when she needs to be and charmingly charismatic – but the character’s charm feels hollow, as if the magic matters more than the person behind it.
Much of the play’s drawbacks are a direct result of its pace. The songs are fun and lively, but the repetitive nature of songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and the chimney sweeps’ “Step in Time” detracts from time that could be spent elsewhere on moments between the Banks family members.
Additionally, their episodic structure and lack of continuity make each feel like a stand-alone performance in an overarching plot that doesn’t build toward the family’s ultimate development.
Despite the songs’ upbeat tempo, the play itself drags heavily across both acts. With little plot to tie all the songs together, it felt like there was little substance to the considerable run time of two hours and forty minutes, intermission excluded. Ironically, when the Banks family finally comes together in the end, the moment feels rushed. The projection screen falls and obscures the very point the play has presumably been working toward.
Confusingly, it is the secondary characters who steal the show. Mrs. Brill’s (Phoebe Hu) constant fussing over the state of the house and sarcastic wisdom brings a breath of fresh air to tense moments within the household. The Park Keeper’s (Robert Yeretch) strict persona fades as soon as he sees Michael’s kite. His child-like enthusiasm is as energetic as the rest of the show, but ultimately it is his genuine change of heart that epitomizes what the play could embody elsewhere.
There is also a palpable change in atmosphere with the entrance of Mr. Banks’s own childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (Jan Alexandra Smith) at the beginning of the second act. “The Holy Terror” of nannies, Miss Andrew is strict and mean, and Smith carries her with enough power to make you shudder even from the back of the house.
She and Mary Poppins have an epic nanny dance-off that is excellent, yet short-lived in a play that stretches everything else. Further, resting so much of the play’s energy on the shoulders of a secondary character is, to my mind, a curious choice.
It is worth noting that the play’s issues – pacing, character development, parallel moments falling flat – are a matter of writing rather than production quality. Where the script lacks in story, the production certainly shines.
The fluidity of Stephen Cota’s choreography in songs like “Step in Time” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is mesmerizing. The ensemble brings much of Mary’s magic to life while simultaneously stifling Mr. Banks as they circle him at work. More intimately, the dancing statue, Neleus (Jak Barradell), and magically animated Pierrette and Pierrot dolls breathe life and wonder into the play.
Set designer Lorenzo Savoini and projection designer Jamie Nesbitt have created some choreography of their own. The set, a large white box, is equipped with six massive revolving doors through which the cast enter and exit. Nesbitt’s projections transform the white walls into everything from aristocratic damask wallpaper, to a public park, to London’s industrial cityscape.
As fun as the songs are and despite solid individual performances across the board, in the end “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins” feels as though the windswept disparate moments together on the doorstep of 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins
The Grand Theatre
Nov. 26 – Dec. 29
Purchase tickets online
Box office: 519-672-8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.