The week in theatre: Mary Poppins; Murder in the Cathedral; Much Ado About Nothing – review

Mary Poppins can be relied upon to return. We have watched her neat figure ascending skywards holding the umbrella with the green parrot’s head so often – in PL Travers’s books, watching the 1964 Disney film and in the recent sequel – her back ramrod straight, her hair glossily black as a wooden doll’s. And though some of us might watch her depart with a lump in our throats, we have known that, somehow, she always finds her way back. Now, here she is again, practically perfect in every way, in a glorious revisiting of the 2004 Cameron Mackintosh musical, directed by Richard Eyre. You will not find a more theatrically escapist outing in London this winter.

Zizi Strallen’s delicious Mary Poppins is in love with herself – revelling in the pleasure of neatly tying the sash of a starched apron around her waist, of turning her toes out into first position, of patting her hair approvingly in the glass. She has sparkling eyes, a radiant smile and a carpet bag. Who could ask for more? And watch the way she heads upstairs, her head held high like a swan’s. Nor does Strallen neglect the underlying mystery of the role because… who is Mary? On the face of it, she is a prude – rebuffing cheerful Bert’s advances. But Strallen, although suitably secretive, allows one to speculate idly about whether Mary might be more available to her “diamond in the rough” once our backs are turned.

Bert (the diamond in question) is played by Charlie Stemp with winning naturalness (his cockney accent more secure than Dick Van Dyke’s in the film). There is phenomenal choreography by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear: Mary proves a dainty dancer, statues in the park come balletically to life and, in the fabulous Step in Time, chimney sweeps create sooty mayhem while Bert pulls off the impossible – tap-dancing upside down from one end of the proscenium arch to the other.

Back at Cherry Tree Lane, an excellent Amy Griffiths shines as a neurotically plausible Mrs Banks while Joseph Millson convincingly evolves as Mr Banks – losing almost everything before learning to become himself. And Jane and Michael were charmingly played on the night I saw the show by Adelaide Barham and Gabriel Payne.

At times, there is a hint of Downton Abbey to the show (and no wonder – Julian Fellowes wrote the book). The servants (nicely played by Claire Machin and Jack North) get caught up in high jinks in the kitchen beneath a portrait of Queen Victoria, who looks the other way. But the mood keeps changing and Petula Clark (a casting coup) sings Feed the Birds with perfectly judged plaintiveness.

Richard Eyre’s production is a nicely calculated mix – faithful to the original yet shrewdly revisionist. He lightly underscores a non-Edwardian dilemma, reminding parents of the challenge of finding a perfect work/life balance. Bob Crowley’s playful design is variously undaunted: he gives us a doll’s house for grown-ups in Cherry Tree Lane, a grand black-and-white artist’s sketch of St Paul’s and lively rooftops. But the evening is, above all, an opportunity to reflect on the peculiarity of Mary Poppins herself. Who else would say: “I don’t need any luck, thank you.” Make sure to catch the show before the wind changes.

‘Too many foreboding chords’: Jasper Britton, centre, as Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, first performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1935, can seem wilfully undramatic. It is a long wait – the cathedral a waiting room – for the inevitable: the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket. The chorus, as in a Greek tragedy, sets the tone: “Towards the cathedral, we are forced to bear witness. Since golden October declined into sombre November…” Eliot’s powerful incantations can cast a spell or get bogged down in their sonorities and while it is a pleasure to be in Southwark Cathedral, where Thomas Becket preached his last London sermon, it is a slog to the finishing line.

Having said that, this production, directed by Cecilia Dorland, has an honourable attempt to make the verse drama soar. Jasper Britton brings an thoughtful intensity to Becket and the women of Canterbury perform with admonitory fluency – at home with doom – although they could do with paying more nuanced attention to individual lines. (In “living and partly living” – the “partly living” should be more rueful, not bellowed to the rafters.) One can have too many foreboding chords. Humankind cannot – at least when on the receiving end of this production – bear very much theology.

Much Ado About Nothing is a “skirmish of wit” and ought to have been light relief, but this production was like being at a party where not enough funds have gone into the catering. On stage are a handful of balloons, upturned crates and soldiers in camouflage swigging beer. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Beatrice slops about in T-shirt and baggy trousers with the look of someone inured to hangovers. She is seldom without a drink in hand and is, at one point, tipsily in charge of a banana and, at another, uses a celery stick to punctuate her points. But Myer-Bennett does her accomplished best to hold the show together and brings vitality, ruefulness and, occasionally, a convincing hysteria to the role. She shows how insults can be a kind of foreplay and Geoffrey Lumb’s Benedick, one of nature’s swaggerers, proves a good foil to her, even if he labours the self-referential side to his character.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photograph: Mark Douet

The party turns into a fancy-dress bash in which all the characters are, unaccountably, kitted out as superheroes. Imran Momen makes a striking Claudio (reminding one of how interesting Shakespeare’s weak characters are). Hannah Bristow’s Hero is vividly realised and conveys, with dropped jaw, an almost cartoon horror when wronged. Christopher Bianchi is consistently amusing as Leonato, Hero’s inconsistent father.

In director Elizabeth Freestone’s obstreperous production, the dancing is all over the place, the songs seldom continue uninterrupted, nothing is left alone for long. The show is playful, inventive but over-directed (over-direction is just as possible as overacting). And although – and perhaps partly because – Jean Chan’s set is a simple affair boasting a couple of regulation bay trees, this informal production has not as yet settled on Wilton’s Music Hall’s traditional stage (exquisite though the theatre is). It started life at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol where it may have been more at home.

Star ratings (out of five)
Mary Poppins
Murder in the Cathedral
Much Ado About Nothing

  • Mary Poppins is at the Prince Edward theatre, London, until 3 May

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