It’s not a carbon copy. One difference is that the kids really are quite nasty monsters in the beginning
Zizi Strallen doesn’t bear much resemblance to a flying Edwardian nanny as she takes her seat in a grim hotel conference suite. But in a few hours this 25-year-old scion of a famous London acting family will breath magical life into PL Travers’ Mary Poppins, whom she plays in a new touring production of the West End musical.
“We had the premiere a few days ago and it was quite nerve-wracking,” she nods. “You are aware how many in the audience really know their stuff. It’s not just families. It’s people who will dissect and critique. That makes it a little more challenging.”
She has tried not to think too much about Julie Andrews, who turned Poppins into an icon with the 1964 Disney movie. There is an onus on the actress to make the part her own, rather than deliver a thin Andrew impersonation. Also, the musical drills deeper into the darker subtexts of Travers’ original novel. It is a very different beast from the arguably frothy film.
“It’s not a carbon copy ,” she says. “I can afford to play it slightly differently. One difference is that the kids really are quite nasty monsters in the beginning.”
The musical is somewhat of a hodgepodge. It retains the beloved Sherman Brothers songs from the film — ‘A Spoonful Of Sugar’, ‘Feed The Birds’, and so on — but has an original book, by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes. It created a sensation on its debut in 2004 and was perceived to have raised the bar for production values in musical theatre.
The eye-popping set-pieces are retained in the present touring version, which commences a month-long residency at Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin from December 3. Not only does Poppins sail through the air; chimney sweep Bert (Australian choreographer Matt Lee) literally prances on the ceiling in a song and dance routine set in the roofs high above London.
“I watched Mary Poppins as a child, obviously,” says Strallen. “I never thought I would be doing this show. It’s quite a lot to take in. The number where Bert walks on the ceiling is particularly amazing. It builds and builds. We always get a good cheer for that.”
Strallen is the niece of Bonnie Langford, the former child star who went on to star in Dr Who. Her parents, Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, are also West End veterans, while her older sister has played the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
“It sounds cliched but it is definitely in our blood,” she says. “We are all alright at it. Which is very odd. It’s in our genes.”
As it happens, her father was against Zizi going into entertainment, suggesting she train as a lawyer instead.
“That was out of a concern for my financial stability,” she says. “Because both my parents are in the business, they know how hard it is — the knock backs, the rejections. They didn’t want that side for us. In fact, we’re doing quite well — so they’re happy.”
Did Strallen have a nanny growing up? And if so, can she empathise with the naughty Banks children upon whom Poppins attempts to put manners?
“I didn’t have a nanny. However, my older sisters did, as my parents were in a lot of shows when they were young. So there was a live-in nanny,” she says. “I moved into what was her bedroom as I got older. She was hilarious — my sisters used to say that she had flip-flops and you could always hear her coming. But she didn’t sing and she never flew.”