The theatrical juggernaut Mary Poppins has arrived in the city and is set wowing audiences in supercalifragilistic style. JOHN BULTITUDE went behind the scenes to find out more.
It takes a little more than a spoonful of sugar to bring the magical story of Mary Poppins to the stage. To start with, there are 18 lorries full of set, costumes and equipment to be placed on stage. Company manager Neil White is the man at the helm of the production and says the show is actually treated as an installation within a theatre.
“It is very much that you enter the auditorium and it is the same as seeing a show in the West End whether it is down to the quality of the casting or the size of the set,” he said. “You are not going to Norwich Theatre Royal to see a touring production. This is exactly what you would see if it was in the West End.”
That attitude and approach comes from co-producers, global giants Disney and world-renowned theatrical impresario Cameron Mackintosh. Neil explained: “Both of them are at the top of their field in what they do and are both incredible brands. Disney is about the magic and if you go and see a Cameron show you see a certain standard of production. That is what he is passionate about. If you see a Disney show, you expect the magic of a Disney experience. You have those two images to keep up with.”
The whole process of bringing the production to Norwich from June 29 to July 30 stretches back to when the tour is initially being planned. The set is specifically built with the Theatre Royal (and other venues) in mind so that it will fit in all of them along with any adjustments that need to be met to fit in with the design quirks of each building.
Getting all 18 trucks of equipment into the venue is also quite a challenge. The first lorry leaves the previous venue at 10.20pm on a Saturday night and will arrive at its new home at 8am the following morning. From there, it is a question of getting everything out of the old venue and into the new one in exactly the right order.
That will mean backstage crew will be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so everything is complete for a dress rehearsal at 2pm on the Wednesday afternoon.
To make this work and to ensure the production runs seamlessly, Mary Poppins needs:
25 production crew of rigger, carpenters and electricians to put the show in.
28 local technicians
The touring company of:-
35 adult cast
Resident children’s director
7 stage management
3 automation technicians
And Neil said precision is very important: “In each theatre, there isn’t a spare case that doesn’t need to be there. Everything is properly finished and it is a joy to work on because of the planning that goes into it.”
The tour’s production manager and deputy production manager oversee the installation. It is covered by exactly the same rules as a building site and there is a health and safety adviser around at the start of each run to make sure everything is safe and all the correct procedures are followed.
One of Neil’s key areas is to oversee is the children who star in Mary Poppins and have such crucial roles, with two performing in each show and two on standby. He said: “Their parents do not come with us. We have travel chaperones who pick them up from their homes and they then stay with our tour chaperones. During the day, they have to be tutored and do their 15 hours of schooling a week. They will have their break and then come in and do the show and then go back to school. You achieve a sense of normality for them although most of them have longer CVs than me.”
Neil is also the go-to person for all the cast and has to make sure they are all happy and have everything they need. He said the quality of every single actor is very high. “Having that calibre of performer is fantastic. We also have an amazing creative team with people like Richard Eyre, Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear. The first day of rehearsals was like walking into the House of Lords because everyone was titled.
“Cameron is also very passionate about the show. In a technical rehearsal, he can spot if the Admiral’s sideburns are not at quite the right angle. He approves every poster, every piece of artwork and every piece of merchandise because his name is on it. That attitude spreads to all of us. We are very aware and I am very aware that I am representing both him and Disney.”
For Neil, it is the latest show in a long career which saw him start off helping with amateur dramatic productions in his native Yorkshire before going to work at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. Since then, his career has taken him into the West End and all over the UK (and beyond) with other productions. He is also no stranger to Norwich having company-managed the likes of Oliver! and Shrek in recent years, while he also came to Norfolk regularly as a child to stay at his parents’ holiday home.
“I know Norfolk well,” he said. “My parents had a holiday home in Weybourne for 20 years. I would spend so much time in Norwich, particularly summer holidays and Christmases. Norfolk is like my second home. I go up to Weybourne, Holt and Sheringham. The North Norfolk coast is just a place you can escape to. I come from the moors in Yorkshire which are wild and rural and this is the seaside equivalent.
“I absolutely love being in Norwich. It is different to a lot of cities. There is a calmer pace of life. I am also a big fan of independent theatres. With them, there is so much care and love that goes into the building and the staff are a lot more passionate normally as well.”
He admits being involved with a production like Mary Poppins is a fantastic opportunity. “It is like going into a garage and being offered a Porsche or a Mini. What do you want to drive? The Cameron Mackintosh brand is a global thing which is recognised all over the world. He will get the best possible production and make it so it can transfer all over the globe.”
And he is also a big fan of the story itself with memories of seeing the movie starring Julie Andrews. “I liked the film. Mary Poppins is that strange character. The brilliant thing about the stage show is that she is much darker and her character goes back to the books. There is that element of witchcraft and that darker side to it. You also ask ‘who is Bert and where does he come from?’ There is that mythical element,” said Neil.
“It is about how this mythical person helps out a troubled family. It is about people listening to their children and it is as relevant today as it was when PL Travers wrote it. It reminds us that people should not spend so much time immersed in their jobs or status that they forget what is going on around them. It is also about a series of adventures and about learning a lesson.”
So a spectacular show with a message for us all is on the way to Norwich thanks to Neil, the cast and company who are bringing the excitement of London’s theatre-land direct to Norfolk.
Mary Poppins, Wednesday 29 June-Saturday 30 July 2016 at 7.30pm, and Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm except June 30. Please note there are no Sunday performances. Tickets £8-£57.50. Discounts for Over-60s, Under-18s, and Groups. Captioned performance on Wed 20 July at 7.30pm. Signed performance on Wed 27 July at 7.30pm. Audio-described performance on Wed 27 July at 7.30pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000