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BLOG: Screening of Mary Poppins Returns and Q&A with Rob Marshall

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

Friday 14th December 2018

I’m in a small cinema room in the basement of a hotel in Covent Garden. A glass of white wine in one hand and a mince pie in the other. It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon... but it’s Christmas. And for the small audience of forty or so people, a little piece of Christmas is about to come early.

We are here for a special screening of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns one week before it’s UK Christmas release on 21st December followed by a Q&A with director Rob Marshall.

To the left of me is theatre critic Mark Shenton, behind him is Jay Parsons from Pocket Sized Theatre blog. Nestled between them are George Asprey and Gary Jordan who play Scar and Zazu in The Lion King in the West End. In front of me is ITV’s Superstar winner Ben Forster who recently returned to the stage in the limited run of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s workshop production Unmasked. It’s less than a year since Ben had to pull out of the final week of Elf the Musical after breaking his ankle. Seated next to him is another leading man from Disney’s theatrical family Matthew Croke currently playing Aladdin in the West End. His distinctive dark curls are suitably kempt under a smart flat cap. I tap him on the shoulder and congratulate him on his recent marriage. Matthew is now in his second and final year as Aladdin which will close in August when Mary Poppins the Musical returns to the West End. He smiles and admits that he isn’t sure whether he is ready to leave, but grateful that he didn’t have to make the decision to. There’s a twinkle in his eye which tells me he won’t be away from the West End for long.

I have just enough time to reach over Ben for another mince pie before reclining into the red leather cinema seat. I pause for a moment, is it by chance that the red leather of the small cinema’s upholstery coordinates perfectly with the new Mary Poppin’s hat and gloves? or if my imagination allows, did Mary Poppins herself reach out of the screen and run her touch over each chair? and so as the lights go down and the film starts the magic of Mary Poppins returns.

There was exactly fifty-four years between the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 and the last in 1988. Coincidentally Disney have waited fifty-four years to follow up its classic and only Mary Poppins film in 1964, with its sequel Mary Poppins Returns. Avoiding the trend to reboot, this is a direct sequel which is purposely set in 1934 when the first book was written. It enables the new story to be placed in the depression era. Twenty-four years after the setting of the first film, where now Michael and Jane are grown up.

The task of developing this new story was given to Rob Marshall who was appointed director and chorography as well as co-writer. The Academy Award winner whose success with Chicago perhaps paved the way for the resurgence in musical movies this century. Marshall spoke at the Q&A after the film saying “A musical on film feels like a hybrid of theatre and film. The bones of it are in musical theatre”. A herniated disc while performing in Cats saw Marshall transition from a dancer into a choreographer and subsequently a director. Born four years before the original Mary Poppins film, Marshall regards the film as his own introduction to the genre, and the beginning of his love of musicals. He remembers the overwhelming feeling of escaping into this world of joy, and being a part of the wonder and the magic of it.

Marshall explains he wanted to explore the theme ‘loss’. “There had to be a big enough reason for Mary Poppins to come back, and so the idea of maybe they’ve lost a family member, but also a sense of Michael and Jane and the loss as they’ve grown of their childhood wonder, so she needs to come back to reignite that again and help heal this family. Setting it in the 30’s in the depression era, I felt that time period is much more current. I felt it was more accessible to me, I felt that I can see ourselves, our time in that time, in a darker time, when we all need a lift. We all need a sense of joy. An injection of hope in to our lives. That’s what this film brings. And hopefully you can remember what it’s like to be a child, to see life through a child’s eyes with wonder and joy again. That’s the message of the film.” He went on to say that the reason Meryl Streep, who plays a small part in the film, accepted the role was because “she really wanted to be a part of sending a message of hope out into the world now”.

Before watching the new film, most of the thoughts that cross my mind are, is this film going to be as good? Will the music be as good, will Lin Manuel Miranda’s accent be as good? Ok. So, on that account, it can universally be agreed that it probably can’t be as bad as Dick Van Dyke’s original attempt at the cockney accent. Although unsurprisingly most American’s are unaware how bad Van Dyke’s accent was, to their untrained ear there’s no discordance. Yet here we are again with an American actor playing the cockney role, although Lin Manuel Miranda’s ear is far from untrained. With training, and acclaim in musical theatre, is the part in safe hands?

Miranda plays Jack, a likeable lamp lighter, a reimagined version of Van Dyke’s Bert the chimney sweep. Swapping sweeps for ladders and a bicycle. Director Rob Marshall says of Lin Manuel Miranda casting that he “is so full of life, and so enthusiastic, and authentic, there’s a pure childlike spirit to him, and I thought, well that’s Jack.” This new character feels familiar to start, but only really comes into its own by the second half of the film. As does Miranda’s performance which for the most part is a homage to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, that would allow for Miranda’s accent which is just as questionable as Van Dyke’s, and at certain points feels entirely dubbed. He only really takes off when Miranda is given a rap.

When it came to casting the title role, Marshall says he knew from working with her on ‘Into The Woods’ that Emily Blunt was Mary Poppins. “She had all the ingredients. It’s a huge task to take on that character, but I knew she had the skill as an actress to play all those layers." he says "Mary Poppins isn’t just a two-dimensional stern proper nanny, under that, you see these moments, these human moments of humour and heart. I love everything about Emily, she’s so quick witted and smart but also accessible. You like her. She just had everything.” This is a reimagined version of Mary Poppins, and rightly so Blunt is not impersonating Julie Andrews, both play the character very differently. Andrew’s original is softer, where Blunt seems to go deeper, she is more stern. This is an obvious and intentional choice made my Blunt to illustrate not the change in Mary Poppins but the change in the world around her. In the original, Mary Poppins is greeted by chivalry and good manners from everyone she encounters. In a subtle but poignant scene in this sequel, we see Mary pushed aside and shunned by a postman whilst queuing in the bank. It’s an overt indication that illustrates the deterioration of social etiquette that has occurred within society since we last met Mary. Although she might not have aged, the world has. As a singer, Blunt is pitch perfect and delightful, we are also introduced to a sassier Mary Poppins complete with a bobbed hair cut during the fantasy sequence, reinforcing again that we’re not seeing a different Mary, we’re just seeing more of her.

Marshall said about the film that it was a daunting thrill to make, using himself as a barometer “I really thought, what would I want to see in a sequel. I would want to see an animation a live action sequence all hand drawn, because I feel it’s in the DNA of Mary Poppins. I would want a big production number with men that’s athletic- that’s exciting. Also, what would I miss? What do I feel is part of the spirit and lineage of Mary Poppins. Those things were very important to me, as well as creating something new.”

The opening credit sequence comprises of beautiful oil paintings which like most of the sequel nod to the original. The film is not only a love letter to Mary Poppins but also to London. It is brought to life beautifully and atmospherically by Marshall’s delicate and exquisite design.

This is the first time in Marshall’s career that he has worked on a musical developed for film with entirely original music. Written by Marc Shaiman whose work notably includes ‘Hairspray’, it has all the hallmarks of the original Mary Poppins, but just doesn’t quite hit the mark. The score sweeps and delights with the songs weighing in as nice. Although the lyrics are well constructed and often incorporate classic nursery rhymes, they probably won’t leave you whistling a merry tune by the time you leave. Having said that they are perfectly charming.

In this new story, we find Michael Banks widowed with three children. “The hardest thing to cast was the children. It was hard to find three “real” children. Not showbiz children, real kids that you really feel for. I wanted to make sure that this felt like a real family.” The acting from the three child stars they found can be summed up as toe curling, occasionally very embarrassing but often excessively sentimental. They have certainly been cast well enough to carry the emotional punch of supporting their grieving father Michael, played impeccably by Ben Whishaw who says that the original Mary Poppins film was the reason he became an actor. If that’s the case, we have another reason to thank Mary. Whishaw has been a long-standing firm favorite actor of mine, and both he and Emily Mortimer who plays Jane are exceptional actors who truly elevate the entire film.

Angela Lansbury and original cast member Dick Van Dyke, now ninety-three also feature with Marshall saying that their involvement was a dream come true. “He [Dick Van Dyke] grabbed my hand as we walked on to the set and said ‘I feel the same spirit here as I did on the first film’.” In a small but charming scene and performance by Angela Lansbury, you can almost sense that it was written in hope for Julie Andrews to play, it certainly could have worked that way, never the less Lansbury is a much welcome addition to the cast. As is Noma Dumezweni, as a secretary Miss Penny Farthing, who filmed her part before moving over to New York to reprise her role as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child on Broadway.

The recasting of Julie Walters as Ellen the maid and David Warner as Admiral Boom does jar initially. Both seem too recognizable to blend in. For their first few scenes it did feel as though I was watching a French and Saunders movie spoof. When Walters bursts onto the screen, you are taken out of the movie for a moment thinking you are watching her famous “two soups” waitress scene. But once my eyes adjusted and Walters settled in, I was able to accept and adore her. A motif I can generally extend to the entire film.

For me, Mary Poppins Returns is practically perfect. The songs are rousing to the point I kept finding myself wanting to applaud at the end of each, and at several times throughout the film I caught myself smiling unequivocally. Like an old friend you’ve lost touch with, most will have an affection for Mary Poppins and those original characters, and some of us might have even wondered and imagined ourselves how they would have grown. This movie offers a suggestion, one of the many possibilities, and whether you prefer your own idea of what they would be like now, Mary Poppins Returns delivers a very gratifying possibility.

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