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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Poppins’

Stiles & Drewe are one of Britain’s most underrated musical theatre creators. This was their first (proper) show, staged here at the Watermill some 30 years ago. Both Julia McKenzie and Cameron Mackintosh championed their early work (McKenzie directing and Macintosh producing the premiere of this). McKenzie went on to direct their next show, Honk!, a surprise winner of the Olivier Best Musical Award (beating Mamma Mia & The Lion King!) after it transferred (also from Newbury) to the NT.

Mackintosh has remained their theatrical godfather, commissioning them to successfully refresh and renew Mary Poppins and Half a Sixpence, though other lovely shows like Soho Cinders and Betty Blue Eyes have had less success. I’ve seen it twice before (Tricycle 1990 and Tabard 2010) and now it’s back at the Watermill, this time in the garden, given our ongoing pandemic caution, and I’m delighted to report its a treat all over again.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, we follow the elephant child, accompanied by the flightless kolokolo bird, in search of the giant crab, who is causing floods by playing with the sea. Along the way, we meet a rhino, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, leopard, jaguar, crocodile, kangaroo and yellow dingo dog, and visit the parsee man on his island. A wise old magician acts as our narrator.

It’s amazing how these (mostly) animal characters are created through costume colour, a scarf here and a hat there, hair made to look like a mane and some stripes on the arms, in Katie Lias’ brilliant homespun design. As is customary at the Watermill, nine talented actor-musicians play all of the instruments as well as all of the characters, human or animal. It works brilliantly in the theatre’s lovely garden, animals able to spill out from the stage and roam around the audience. Abigail Pickard Price’s staging is as delightful as the story and Stiles’ catchy songs and Drewe’s witty lyrics work their magic.

An absolutely lovely afternoon, not to be missed, whatever your age!

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This show takes its title from a song in Mary Poppins sung by Mr Banks, played by the actor David Tomlinson, the subject of the play. A one-man biographical memoir featuring Miles Jupp, and its rather good.

Tomlinson had a very successful career playing the archetypal English gent. Though he worked on stage and TV, it was his prolific big screen career, some fifty films, for which he was best known. Walt Disney was apparently initially reluctant to cast him as Banks, but must have warmed to him as he later also cast him in Bedknobs & Broomsticks and The Love Bug, a trio of films which made him recognisable to a generation of children, and their parents & grandparents.

In addition to his film career, we learn about his difficult relationship with his domineering father, who led a double life, and the contrasting close relationship with his autistic son, one of four he had with second wife Audrey. These moving moments alternate with extremely funny ones of English eccentricity, somewhat lost in translation in Hollywood. Lee Newby’s Magrittesque pale blue set provides the perfect backdrop. Jupp plays Tomlinson engagingly, with great audience contact, warmth and charm.

It appears to be comedy writer James Kettle’s first play; an impressive achievement indeed. Perhaps Jupp is so comfortable with Kettle’s lines because he writes them for the News Quiz too. There’s a delicacy and lightness of touch about the writing, staging and performance that makes for a delightful evening, well worth a couple of hours of your time.

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For a man who gave us one of the greatest musical productions ever (Guys & Dolls at the NT in 1982 and 1996), Richard Eyre hasn’t directed many musicals. I can only remember two more before this (Mary Poppins & Betty Blue Eyes) and both were great. The question you have to ask after a fourth gem is Why?

There haven’t been many ‘blue collar’ musicals either, so this one, about a labour dispute in the Sleep Tite pyjama factory, is unusual. It hasn’t had many productions (another Why?), the last in London at the indispensable Union Theatre five years ago. With a track record of four musical transfers in the last 2.5 years, I’ll be surprised if this terrific Chichester production doesn’t follow.

The factory is run by tyrant Hasler (an excellent Colin Stinton, who doubles up as the leading lady’s dad) who has employed new superintendent Sid, a go-getter from Chicago, the third in next to no time. His Time & Motion man Vernon (a superb Peter Polycarpou, back for his third Chichester musical in as many years) stalks the shop floor. Union president Prez and union rep Babe are pushing for a 7.5c rise and it looks like they’ll have to strike to get it. Then Babe falls for Sid and it all gets a lot more complicated.

From the opening number, Racing with the Clock, it goes from one showstopper to another. There are a couple of standards – Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) & Hernando’s Hideaway – but the whole score’s good. We move swiftly and slickly from factory to office to picnic to nightclub to Babe’s home with little time to catch your breath in-between. Designer Tim Hatley puts a two-story building at the back of the space, from which sewing and pressing work stations emerge for the shop floor, desks for the offices and a kitchen for the home. Stephen Mear’s choreography is bright and fresh and with Gareth Valentine in charge of the music it all sounds great.

For a musicals obsessive like me, it’s a bit of a shock to come across a leading man I’m not sure I’ve seen before and Hadley Fraser is simply terrific as Sid, with a particularly fine voice. Joanna Riding is a delight as icy, feisty Babe who melts in the hands of Sid. Alexis Owen-Hobbs is great as secretary Gladys, and Vernon’s unlikely love interest, who follows Hasler everywhere except when she struts her stuff in the Act II opener Steam Heat (with actual steam!) and there’s a delightful cameo from Claire Machin as Sid’s secretary Mabel.

An uplifting delight from start to finish, which benefits from the smaller space if the Minerva Theatre, and well worth the trip south.

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