She may be tricky but she’s bloody good! A grown-up’s hand suddenly appeared in a belated effort to muffle Michael Banks’ cheeky acknowledgement to the crowd – and the warmth of response from a packed Hippodrome made it crystal clear that the audience agreed with this snappy summing up of Mary Poppins.
Tricky enough to win the hearts of an ever-so-slightly dysfunctional Edwardian family and to turn their lives around.
Tricky enough to send the ghastly, soul-destroying rival nanny, Miss Andrews (not the fragrant Julie, of course), packing forever back to whatever hellhole she came from.
Tricky must also be the word for what faces any performer brave enough to fill the shoes of a living legend like Julie Andrews.
What must it be like to know that virtually every member of every audience will be comparing your every move, your every syllable with a 40-year-old movie performance by a star at the top of her game?
A performance that, like Julie Andrews’ other iconic musical, Sound of Music, has been watched over and over again by generation after generation of families, while the most famous songs themselves are firmly lodged in the consciousness of the nation.
If this knowledge was worrying Caroline Sheen on any level when she stepped out – sorry, flew – on to the stage in front of a sell-out audience on Tuesday, then there was no outward sign.
Quite the contrary, in fact. Not only did she look the part – fantastic, like all the costumes – but the singing was also spot-on, although we sometimes strained to hear even though we were sitting near the stage.
Most importantly, Caroline managed to make the role her own, exuding the kind of quiet confidence that reflects a fairly impressive CV, including Sandy in Grease at London’s Victoria Palace and Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium.
The same was true of all the key characters – from the Banks children, Michael and Jane, played with equally impressive confidence on this occasion by William Pearce and Liberty Cheesman, although the 12-week Hippodrome run will draw on a pool of a dozen child performers, to Daniel Crossley as cheeky chappie-cum chimney sweep Bert.
Much of the show will be familiar to anyone who knows and loves the movie version but a heavy-hitting team of writers and production people that includes co-creator Cameron Mackintosh, Disney producer Thomas Schumacher and actor-writer Julian Fellowes have pulled off the difficult job of successfully combining old with new.
What’s different? Well, there are the songs for a start – eight of them, and not a single clunker among them. Temper Temper stood out for me, mostly because of the imaginative use of giant toys in a fantasy-type sequence that worked incredibly well as Jane and Michael were taught another useful lesson by the practically perfect Poppins.
Brimstone and Treacle was another winner, with Deryn Edwards’ acidic Miss Andrews bringing a welcome touch of Wicked Witch of the West to offset the heavy helpings of sugar. Her success in the role can be judged by the eager booing from the crowd.
The other shift was in the storyline, with the unhappiness of George and Winifred Banks taking more of a centre-stage position. Martin Ball did a believable job when it came to capturing the frustration, pent-up anger and dawning realisation of the anal father/bank manager who won’t spend quality time with his children or wife.
And Louise Bowden did likewise as the under-appreciated mother and wife, seizing the opportunity here and there to show off a fine voice.
The classics, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Spoonful of Sugar, ticked all the boxes and gave a rip-roaring supporting cast the chance to sing and dance their socks off.
Jolly Holiday worked especially well, with an athletic group of brought-to-life statues replacing the animated penguins in the film.
The transition from grey Edwardian London to Mary Poppins’ Technicolour alternative reality was stunning and so were all the other magical touches – a tough challenge, surely, for the backroom boys and girls – from the bottomless carpetbag that produces an aspidistra and full-height coatrack to the collapsing plate racks and kitchen table that Mary puts right with a click or three of her fingers.
The no-expense-spared sets were faultless and played no small part in recreating the magical Poppins world, with a succession of clever transformations that switched seamlessly from the cosy interiors of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and a seemingly cavernous banking hall to smoking chimney-capped London rooftops and a rainswept park.
Quibbles? Just the one. A slightly sluggish start contributed to the feeling that the show was over-long and might have benefited from a trim or two to reduce the running time – roughly two hours 45 minutes, with a 20 minute interval.
But there was no sign of bum shifting even among the younger members of audience, with a second half that gathered strength and featured some eye-popping special effects like the irrepressible Bert striding up the walls and along the curtain-tops and a closing scene where Mary Poppins’ flying umbrella took her off and way above the audience, into the gods and up into a trapdoor in the ceiling.
On stage at the Hippodrome until September 27. Call 0844 338 5000 or click on birminghamhippodrome.com