On the face of it, Julian Fellowes could have retired on Mary Poppins alone; the stage show has been running since 2004 when he wrote the “book” for a West End production and it is still running on Broadway and around the world. It has grossed more than $731 million worldwide and has been nominated for seven Tony Awards.
But between 2004 and Mary Poppins’s opening night in Auckland last night, Fellowes has written the films Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, Separate Lies and The Young Victoria (among others) and, oh, you know, the one about the posh family living in a big house with all the servants.
With Fellowes now most famous for Downton Abbey, it’s difficult not to see its DNA sprinkled over Mary Poppins, but surely it’s the other way around: a semi-posh family with financial troubles, characters caught in the trap of societal expectations, wayward children. Downton – it’s just Mary Poppins without music!
Okay, stretching it. But Fellowes’s preoccupation with class and what he called “faux-egalitarianism” in our September interview are in this production, which has some of Pamela Travers’s original book series, some of the 1964 Disney movie with the original Sherman brothers songs, and some of Fellowes.
Patriarch George Banks (Simon Burke) is given the back story of a cruel nanny and absent parents, and at his bank, he is given the choice of investing in a flash start-up or a solid, working-class factory. The children (Hattie Hook and Ky Baldwin last night; if you were worried about child labour laws, there are eight kids in all playing the roles of Jane and Michael Banks) are rather more badly-behaved than in the movie, and Winifred Banks (Pippa Grandison) is not a suffragette, but a frustrated actress.
The production is exuberant, colourful, gorgeous. It fair cracks along and at times is so technically clever that you’re often too busy marvelling at the scenery changes to be thinking about the songs. Sets open up like pop-up books, scenes noiselessly appear and disappear, the inanimate comes to life. The sets and costume design by Bob Crowley are like a beautiful moving story book. The large cast of mostly Australian performers, including Matt Lee as Bert and Sally-Anne Upton as Mrs Brill, doesn’t put a foot wrong. Or if they did, you would never know. Occasionally, an Aussie accent peeks through, but they’d have a long way to go to match Dick Van Dyke in the movie.
Then, of course, there’s the magical nanny, played by Broadway star Rachel Wallace. There is Twitter speculation that she is actually the real Mary Poppins. What can we say? Can’t resist: she’s practically perfect in every way. And she really flies!