Sunday, 12 September 2010

Practically Perfect in Every Way

Two brothers and I saw "Mary Poppins" at Her Majesty's Theatre on Thursday. The ticket price was rather higher than I had been planning to pay, but I had hopes that the show would justify it. The cost of a programme ($20) was in line with the ticket price, but for that we got a large full color programme and a B4 booklet of close-up photos, which made that fairly good value. It had several points which piqued my interest. The quintuple casting of the two children was an obvious necessity, given the amount of work they have and the length of the season. But more notable was the crediting of "Mary Flight" engineering. In Sheldon Cooper's world, that would be a spoiler... we went in with our minds "pre-blown" with the expectation that we'd see some spectacular flying. More on that later!

Our seats were up in the Grand Circle, around to the side a bit. As readers of this blog will know, a bit of altitude doesn't bother me; in Buxton, we always sat in the balcony seats, and in closer-to-home productions, I'm frequently in the roof, operating a follow spot. In the Maj, the view from the Grand Circle is more than adequate, and the show was carefully miked to ensure that every seat heard the show just fine.

From our seats, we could see the domes and lighting board. There were four domes, all of which were used to good effect. It was occasionally distracting to see the full cone of the spotlight, which mostly happened after smoke had been used on stage - which was done extremely well, eg chimney scenes - but the most notable attribute of the follow spotting is precision. Marvellous precision. They would 'bing' on and 'bing' off and be perfectly placed every time.

Throughout the show, precision, precision, precision. I wrote it on my notes five times, all up, and that's only because it would have been redundant to write it any more. The ensemble work was crisp, the technical aspects were executed smoothly, the timing was spot on. It's not easy to stand perfectly still, and then to break into movement at the exact same time that the lights and the music begin moving; and that's exactly what happened.

The title character's first entrance was smoothly done. We weren't specifically looking for her, and completely did not see her - the lights went down, there was a flash of lightning, and then the lights came up to reveal her in the middle of the stage. It's an effective technique - once. When the same method was used a second time later in the show, we could see exactly where she came from. But it still worked fairly well.

A side point, on entrances/exits: The set for the inside of 17 Cherry Tree Lane had an upstairs, which the children would exit by when heading to their rooms. The painted outside showed that there was a bit of a landing before the stairs started moving up, so it didn't look 'wrong' to see the children walk through the exit and not begin climbing stairs. It's a minor point, but one where forethought can maintain artistic verisimilitude - and over and over again, this production had it working right. There were a very few cases where things looked odd (the statues in the park, when they became animated, were clearly in costumes that were zipped up behind), but they were far outweighed by the alternative (like the projected rain effect, which was used in three different ways to create drizzle, driving rain, and snow).

The story takes place in a large number of different locations. This necessitated some swift scene changes, frequently in the middle of other action. To accomplish this, some scenery was flown, and other components were brought in on tracks in the stage. I have no idea how much stuff was in the wings, but it must have been quite considerable. We never saw stage crew, but they were clearly extremely active through the whole show - not the "thirty minutes of boredom, thirty seconds of blind panic" model of some shows.

As a geek, I was of course looking closely at the technical aspects of the show. How would the carpet-bag be handled? I didn't quite satisfy myself on that point. It disgorged a hat stand, which might have been telescoping and might have come from a trap in the floor; a plant, which could easily have been folded down on itself; but also some bedclothes, which couldn't really have fitted along with everything else. There must be some alternative entrance to that Bag of Holding... but we didn't see it. The stage magic was equally impressive in the finger-snap tidying sequence, where a kitchen disaster was smoothly undone without the luxury of running the film backwards, and in a front-of-projection scene where Bert drew a "Welcome" message in the sky prior to Mary's return. His arm movements synchronized with the projection with just a little delay that could be explained by the altitude at which he was writing.

Normally, I would plan to applaud after each song, and occasionally after a particularly awesome entrance or piece of stagecraft. Unfortunately we weren't permitted to do so for quite a while - important dialogue followed immediately after a good song, so applauding would have meant missing out on that. But as the show continued, we got more time to applaud, and we were far from alone in doing so.

Everyone who works in theatre knows what it means to "fly" something. It's not really flown, but rather is strung up and lifted into the roof. And everyone who's used a kite knows what it means to "fly" a kite. But in this show, kites are flown in both senses at once - a convincing rendition of kite movement, in the windlessness of theatre. And not just one kite, but five - moving in and out smoothly - and one of them managed to get stuck on an approaching Mary, a rather neat effect.

Yes, my expectations of "Mary flight engineering" were not disappointed. Even if there'd been only a few short flights, it would have been impressive. But for the grand finale, in every sense of the word, she did more than just fly around the stage - she flew right across the audience's heads, and up into the roof! Two men came to a lighting tree in the auditorium (why two? I don't know; maybe one is in charge of safety) and took what had been a fixed lamp and turned it into a follow spot, smoothly highlighting the departing star. (And yes, she behaved very much as an operatic star, both in singing style and in how she took her bow - I think she earned that privilege.)

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell more about these characters, who through stage magic walked up walls, appeared through dollhouses, turned houses around, held families together, and became powerful in foreign armies (okay, not that). These were all commended for their stagecraft, yet none of them received as much applause as they - and even more so, the invisible crew who made it happen - deserved. This show had its awesome moments. The rest was merely spectacular.