The magic of Mary Poppins arrives in Yorkshire

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The much-loved Mary Poppins has flown into the Bradford Alhambra. Theatre correspondnent Nick Ahad reports.

They’re one of cinema’s greatest and most loved pairings, but how does it feel to step into the perfect shoes and soot-blackened boots of Mary Poppins and her companion Bert?

Zizi Strallen thinks long and hard about the answer and then uses words like “daunting” and “magical”. They’re appropriate words. It’s Strallen who is stepping into the shoes of the practically perfect in every way Mary Poppins as it arrives for an almost unprecedented six week run at the Bradford Alhambra this week.

“It’s a role where I feel like I have to live up to huge expectations of all the people who love Mary Poppins,” says Strallen.

“But I’m also one of those people. I love Mary Poppins too. I have to look at this as my own way of being that character.”

For Strallen one of the key parts of the character she is playing to hundreds of people over the coming month at the Bradford Alhambra is the magic.

“There is an awful lot of magic in the stage show, and if the magic goes wrong, that’s when you really have a problem. Fortunately the people who work on the show creating the magic are brilliant.”

The other key character in the show is of course Mary Poppins’...friend? Partner in mischief? There is a very odd theory on the internet that ageless Mary was Bert’s Nanny when he was a boy. The other half of the double act at any rate, he is played at the Alhambra by Australian Matt Lee. He continues the tradition set by Dick Van Dyke in the film of being as far away from a cheeky cockney as it’s possible to be.

Bert’s background is a little mysterious but that essence of a cheeky chirpy guy is still there. “Bert is a jack-of- all-trades. He does whatever he needs to get by. He is a street artist, a chimney-sweep and a lamplighter. I think his magic in the show comes from Mary, “ says Lee.

“Mary enables him to go on this journey with the kids to teach them these lessons. It isn’t the first time he has been on this journey. People say she may have been his nanny. He is head-over- heels in love with her and he never gets her.”

Whoever he is – and whoever Mary really is, we do know that they are one of cinema’s, and now one of theatre’s, most loved pairings.

When the Disney musical arrived in 1964, with the actually perfect Julie Andrews in the title role, it was clearly something very special.

The critics and the audiences agreed: the film was nominated for 13 Oscars and took home five.

When you look back, you realise of course it is a far weirder and perhaps even more sinister movie than you might have ever imagined, but it does remain something special.

The magic of the movie convinced theatre supremo producer Cameron Mackintosh to create a stage version in 2004. He’d only been trying to make 
it happen for 12 years, it transpires.

“I fell in love with Mary Poppins and Julie Andrews in 1964, just after I left school, when I went to see Walt Disney’s magical film,” he says.

“On reading the credits, I realised the film was based on books by P L Travers, which I then read avidly, discovering that there were many more stories and characters than those in the film. Her forthright, quirkily funny dialogue stayed with me, brought to life in my head by Julie’s brilliant, no-nonsense delivery in the film.

“In the late 1970s I tried, like many other producers, to see if I could get the stage rights to Mary Poppins, but to no avail.

“Over the years, I often used to think of Mary but it wasn’t under 1993 when I was introduced to her creator, the formidable Pamela Travers, that I found that she wouldn’t explain anything to me either.

“By then, Pamela was a frail, but extremely sharp, 93-year- old lady, living in her Chelsea house, in a street looking remarkably like Cherry Tree Lane, eyeing me up and down, asking me lots of questions as she batted away my own. I felt like Michael and Jane Banks, waiting to be told ‘you’ll do’.”

In the event, he would do and he staged, with director Richard Eyre and a script from Julian Fellowes, a spectacular translation of the movie to the stage.

Just the two Olivier awards, rather than the 13 nominations the movie received all those years ago, but it didn’t matter. The great triumph was simply getting a show with so much magic on stage and not, given how loved the story is, making hundreds of enemies of audiences on the way.

For those who love the film, there is a warning – it is not a carbon copy that flew into Bradford this week, but its own unique thing.

Mackintosh says: “After several meetings, Pamela decided that I really was interested in turning her books into a stage musical, rather than just putting the film onstage – something she had refused to allow for decades, wanting a new and different 
score.

“Once Pamela decided I could be trusted with her great creation I was in turn able to persuade her that a stage musical could only be made by combining her stories with the key songs from the film.

“Realising that I was probably her best chance to achieve her long-cherished dream of a stage musical, she agreed and I finally felt a musical Mary might fly after all.”

Fly it did. The negotiations to bring the creation of Mackintosh, starring Strallen and Lee have been long, arduous, and, the reviews next week I’ll bet will tell you, totally worth it.

***

While Julian Fellowes did not stick to simply translating the film’s script on to the stage, there are key elements of the Mary Poppins movie that need to make it to the stage to keep everyone satisfied: the songs.

The original score by the Sherman Brothers survives relatively intact and while audiences will hear new songs, all the classics are there – Jolly Holiday, Step in Time, Feed the Birds. And, yes, Supercali fragilisticexpialidocious. Fun to sing, a nightmare to write.

Mary Poppins, Bradford Alhambra, to December 10. Tickets 01274 432000 or www.bradford-theatres.co.uk

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