Mary Poppins. Directed by Stephen Colyer. Musical director Ian McLean. Free Rain Theatre. The Canberra Theatre. Until March 29. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.
The pedigree of Mary Poppins is complex and should have resulted in a "too many cooks" shambles. But Free Rain's utterly joyous and magical production proves that this show's the exception.
A musical with genuine feeling and a lovely drive has been created out of P.L.Travers' original stories via the Walt Disney film and a quartet of music and lyrics writers (the originals by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; the new ones by George Styles and Anthony Drewe). Julian Fellowes's script delivers a welcome touch of Maggie Smith's Downton Abbey Duchess.
It's the mysterious but friendly Bert (Shaun Rennie) who opens the show and puts before us the rather fractious world of the Banks family. Frazzled father George (Colin Milner) has let his work distance him from his wife Winifred (Christine Wallace's performance is excellent) and children Jane and Michael (the delightfully down-to-earth Georgia Foster and Callum Doherty on opening night). This being middle-class Edwardian England it's a nanny that looks after the children and it's a crisis when yet another one leaves.
Enter Mary Poppins (Alinta Chidzey). She's a woman of mystery and magical powers, firm with the children but possessed of humour and perception. Chidzey's self-assured and dry performance rapidly wins over not only the children but also the audience. This Poppins has of course already won over the easy going Bert and Rennie and Chidzey make the most of subtle romantic tension between the two without ever letting it become mawkish. And that's a prime element in keeping this show aloft.
But it's full of gems. The household double act of servants Mrs Brill (Anita Davenport) and Robertson Ay (an especially agile and funny Lachlan Agett) is a riot of domestic disaster and tart comments. Mrs Corry (Alicia Da Costa), the proprietor of a magical sweet shop, is colourfully down-to-earth. The park has a stalwart and wistful Keeper in Steve Gallinec and one of its statues, Neleus (Sophie Highmore), has a gently told story of family dislocation that parallels that of the Banks children. They are receiving more than a formal education by travelling through Mary's particularly magical version of London. Bronwyn Sullivan, who also plays the terrifying Nanny Miss Andrew, is especially touching as the strange Birdwoman on the steps of St Pauls who gently teaches the children something about giving.
The Canberra Theatreand the technical staff get a fine old work out, with bits of the set flying in and other bits rolling forward and huge LED panels for some scenic elements, the flying of kites and, most excitingly, the flying of some of the humans. Lighting is agreeably subtle and the stage crew dressed in character and even connecting themselves to the action as they move to the next change. Occasionally, the LED panel images are a little sketchy but there are many delightfully subtle moments for a young audience to spot.
It's a show full of rich moments and images, from the wispy Dickensian beards of the elderly bank employees and the statue of Queen Victoria in the park to Mary's casually amazing magic tricks and Bert tap dancing with the chimney sweeps on London's rooftops. And it has a cast and orchestra in excellent singing and dancing form. This is one not to be missed.