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January 31, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Mary Poppins (theatre, Melbourne)


Everyone knows that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down a helluva lot easier. If Mary Poppins sings it, the audience becomes dazed musical zombies; we can’t help but tap our feet and gaze up adoringly at her cherubic face in the quest for approval.

The stage production of Mary Poppins is certainly an homage to the film, which was in turn inspired by the stories written by P.L Travers (a woman I know almost nothing about). Drawn from the brief bio in the Mary Poppins production keepsake, we are soon told that despite having several ‘love affairs’, Travers never married, instead opting to keep her sanity and artistic tenacity by continuing to go it alone.

I find it ironic that this is what the writers choose to focus on when outlining the life of P.L. Travers (b. 1899, d. 1996). For a show that seems almost acidic in its attack on the old-fashioned female ideal as submissive, passive, and ultimately weak, Mary Poppins also seems the wrong place to try and reinstate the status quo.

The production in Melbourne is a wonderful project; having opened in July 2010 , it’s so far enjoyed a healthy audience attendance rate, right up until I saw it yesterday at a packed matinee showing. It’s no wonder, either; for theatre in Australia, the production value of this show must have been pretty darn high. I’m sure it costs more than a spoonful of sugar to make a giant, rotating umbrella descend from the ceiling. There are other set pieces to wonder at, as well; a pop-up style house, puffing chimneys, a collapsible kitchen and aerial stunts that will set stars in any child’s eye. If you’re going to pay $130 a ticket, you may as well get your money’s worth.

With understudy Sarah Bakker as the luminous Mary Poppins, I couldn’t help but be disappointed I was missing out on the much-hyped work of Verity Hunt-Ballard. But to her credit, Bakker is as prim and proper (and quirky) a Poppins as I could ever have imagined. The set pieces roll in and out around her and the cast with to-the-second precision; costume changes inject colour and life into the dance routines and the rather excellent Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious routine certainly ramps up the energy a notch or two.

There are, however, elements which restrict the show’s capacity to be fully enjoyed by anyone over the age of ten. Shrek and Toy Story have shown the world how to create a storyline accessible to both children and adults; Mary Poppins doesn’t seem to know how to stray from simplified plot lines and the awestruck fascination the Banks children have for their new nanny. The original Poppins film was as much about the redemption of Mr. Banks, a seemingly soulless banker with a dead moral compass and disdain for his children, as it was about the children’s relationship with their precocious nanny. But in this version of Mary Poppins, the ‘adult’ storyline is demoted to just another plot anchor upon which to mould the Miss Poppins mystique.

This isn’t as big a restriction as you’d imagine, though; just like Toy Story, people who have grown up with a story are happy to go with simplicity for the sake of fond memories. And there is plenty of leverage for mucking around, with the fabulous Judi Connelli using her booming opera voice to lend more than a little stage presence to the evil Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks’ old governess. And as Mrs Banks, Marina Prior is suitably flummoxed by most things and wholly lost when it comes to maintaining a household, bouncing off the rambunctious housemaid, Mrs. Brill (Sally-Anne Upton) whenever she makes an appearance. This trio of characters carry the brunt of the comedic narrative. Matt Lee does a Bert worthy of praise, but anyone who takes on the role will always be standing in Dick Van Dyke’s shadow.

Mary Poppins is a rather dazzling example of what theatre can do with a large budget and plenty of talent. You can’t help but feel good when you leave. I only wish the script had offered the older audience member something more, rather than relying on the adult audience’s fond memories of Julie Andrews swanning around with her magic bag and parrot umbrella.

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