It’s been a Mary Poppins kind of weekend.
I’ve mentioned the Northwest Childrens Theatre before, and they are at it again – presenting an amazing production of Mary Poppins, based in large part on the film but drawing more material from the books.
Disney’s Mary Poppins is one of those cultural artifacts that has always been in my life. The film was released a few years before I was and it was a staple of Christmas television schedules throughout my childhood. I remember enjoying it, although I hadn’t watched it in years when my wife and I bought a copy on DVD and watched it.
We were both bored.
Not all of it was boring, it was just that some of the scenes seemed over-extended (for example, the nursery tidying with its continually returning toys could have been much shorter) and other sequences which were supposed to be spectacular seemed entirely redundant (the whole “Step In Time” dance number would not have been missed). Oh well, we said to each other: it’s an old film and doesn’t hold up well to modern eyes. It reminded me a bit of watching the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone*, where there are lingering sequences showing the wonder of the magical world that could have accomplished the same effect in half the time.
More recently, we watched the film with our kids and it was a much better experience for us: the scenes that had seemed over-long induced gales of laughter from both boys.
And the theatrical production did too. It was wonderful.
We went to see it in large part because a friend of the family had a part, and he was excellent in the role of Michael Banks. He was very well cast, and I loved the near-cynicism of the characterisation from both him and the actress playing his sister.
Indeed, the cast as a whole was very good and I really have no substantive criticisms of the production: the set design was imaginative and effective (and the scene shifters deserve great praise for their work); the choreography was dynamic and amusing; and those many actors playing multiple roles did so with great aplomb.
My only issues were ones of place. The accents used by the cast were in the main very well done, and indeed class-appropriate – the posh people were posh and the lower orders** were suitably regional – but Mary Poppins herself seemed a bit too posh, and Bert… well.
Bert in the film is played by Dick Van Dyke and his Cockney accent is the canonical atrocious parodic accent. It is consistent, which is more than can be said for (say) Kevin Costner in his Robin Hood film, but it is awful. There again, that is how Bert talks in the film, and that is what you expect.
Bert in the stage production does a perfect impression of Bert from the film, which makes it ideal for a stage rendition of the film but still, unfortunately, a little jarring on first hearing.
There were a couple of minor costume issues (although only on fleeting roles), but the place issue I noticed first was in the skyline: it’s Edwardian London – no radio or television broadcasts in those distant days, so no need for radio antennae.
But regardless of those niggles, the whole thing actually made sense – far more than the film. Obviously as a child I didn’t understand the plot of the film: I took the story simply as a pleasing fantasy of early 19th century England, and I thought it was about the children, not the father. Watching it again as an adult I didn’t really follow that part either, but I did wonder at some of the specifics: the reason Mr Banks’ job is in jeopardy in the film is bizarre, but less so than the reason it is saved.
Those issues were entirely resolved in the stage production: Mr Banks is suspended because of his actions and saved because of their consequences, which is so much more satisfactory. And the film’s “Step In Time” sequence which I found so irksome as an adult was exciting and relevant in the theatre.
As far as I understand, the production is quite justifiably sold out for the remainder of its run, but if you can go I would highly recommend it.
Which brings me to the last bit of Poppins watching – Saving Mr Banks.
We rented this after seeing the stage production, and it’s a remarkable film. It tells the story of how Walt Disney finally persuaded the author of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, to grant the film rights to him. It is filled with performances that inhabit the roles, from Emma Thompson as the author to Colin Farrell as her father. For some reason I was especially struck by Tom Hanks’ turn as Disney himself, a performance that did a lot to humanise old Walt for me. It’s very affecting too: I don’t cry often at films, but this one had me tearing up a little.
Definitely worth a look.
[*] all right, I watched the US version, but I will not use its name because it’s just wrong.
[**] I am of course using these terms in Edwardian-era context.