I have hazy hallucinatory childhood memories of Angela Lansbury on the telly whizzing around on a broomstick fighting Nazis with her hocus pocus and rounded vowels. There was a flying bed, an underwater ballroom bit and a lion king. No, not that one. It’s enough to make you wonder just how many additives there were in our sherbet dib dabs and blancmanges. Well, it turns out it was all true and now the original 1971 movie musical from Mary Poppins composers the Sherman Brothers is reborn in a charming new production.
The story opens with three London kids being orphaned during The Blitz and evacuated to the sleepy seaside Dorset town of Pepperinge Eye. The supporting cast members literally tear their happy home in two, leaving the shattered shell looming on either side of the stage throughout the show as a memory of all they have lost.
Taken in reluctantly by prickly apprentice witch Eglantine Price, the children eventually help her fight off a German invasion with the help of sorcery powered by self-belief. And it’s here that the show really shines.
I genuinely couldn’t see how broomsticks and beds flew, both events prompting well-deserved rounds of applause on opening night. Likewise, there is real delight in the nifty prestidigitation transforming people into rabbits. Pure magic. I also enjoyed the puppetry bringing a fishing bear, courtier crane and kingly lion to delightful life.
Diane Pilkington anchors the entire show with great comedic timing, plucky presence and a clarion clear voice as Miss Price. Charles Braunton is relentlessly craven as sham magician Emelius Browne, slowly finding his backbone and self-worth, although all the cringing becomes a bit wearing.
Fresh out of drama school, Connor O’Hare is a wonderful cross between Tommy Steele and Lee Evans as oldest boy Charlie, even if it is too much of a stretch to believe he is the declared 13 years old.
The rest of the cast, meanwhile, work tirelessly in a show that requires them to sing, dance and constantly change the sets.
The 2-D sets and props are wheeled on and off by everyone, from train station platforms and trees to doorways, windows and beds, while clouds are walked across on long sticks. It’s playfully homemade but a little messy at times, and those looming wrecked buildings either side completely detracted from the underwater ballroom scene. It’s one of the most memorable moments from the original film but failed to soar, no matter how delightful those handheld glowing fish are.
Similarly, the Shermans’ score bobs along on numbers like The Beautiful Briny and Substitutiary Locomotion, and the sweet Age Of Not Believing, but it is frankly not their most outstanding or memorable work. Some of the choreography is also a little flatfooted.
That said, the show finds real enchantment in the cleverly reworked ending which packed a rather unexpectedly emotional punch.