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Zizi Strallen and Cameron Mackintosh - Mary Poppins

Zizi Strallen is flying. Onstage at Birmingham Hippodrome, the twenty-five year old actress who has just spent the best part of three hours onstage is soaring above the audience's heads looking as cool, calm and collected as you like. Given that the latest of the multi-talented Strallen sisters to scale the dizzy heights of the acting world has been playing the title role in Sir Cameron Mackintosh's touring remount of Mary Poppins, such seeming nonchalance regarding defying gravity in this way is exactly as it should be.

A few hours earlier, sitting alone in the Hippodrome's upstairs bar, Strallen is equally poised, albeit with her hair down and a casual shirt thrown over black vest top and jeans, is all but unrecognisable as the magical nanny first seen in a series of eight children's novels penned by P.L. Travers over a fifty-four year period. Only Strallen's perfectly made up and seemingly permanently amused face which will later animate itself into a far more knowing Mary Poppins than one remembers from Julie Andrews' iconic turn in Disney's 1964 film version of the story is in place.

As Sir Richard Eyre's all singing, all dancing production prepares for an Edinburgh run at the city's Festival Theatre later this month, this is in keeping with Downton Abbey writer Sir Julian Fellowes' script. Fellowes' take on things not only retains the story's idealism, but it seems to have a sly dig at how banks do or don't invest their money while advocating a progressive form of parenting that favours play over discipline. Much of this is brought to life onstage by the ebullience of Sir Matthew Bourne's choreography which is served up with an unabashed glee that will make you believe a chimney sweep really can walk on the ceiling.

For Strallen, who carries the show from start to finish, such epic irreverence is exactly how Mary Poppins should be.

“My Mary is quite cheeky,” Strallen says. “I guess I kind of do look young, but I play her as an old soul who's been around for hundreds of years teaching families to love each other, and whatever situation comes up, I just think how would I deal with that or say that if I was a family's au pair or something, and that seems to work. So my Mary is young but wise. She can be any age you want her to be. In the book she's more of a disciplinarian and is tougher on the kids, although it's always done with love and a glint in her eye.”

This was an approach encouraged by Mackintosh when Strallen first auditioned for the role in his house. At the time she was appearing in a revival of The Car Man, Sir Matthew Bourne's radical reimagining of Bizet's opera, Carmen, that incorporates elements of James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice into a darkly erotic affair. Dancing too was destined to be in Mary Poppins' box of tricks.

“Cameron wanted me to play a younger and more flirty Mary Poppins than people might remember from the film,” Strallen says. “He also said that if she can do magic then she should be able to dance as well. Not that Mary Poppins is a high-kicking show-girl, but she does have a few more steps, but that's because she's magic.”

Stepping into Mary Poppins' dancing shoes seems like a natural fit for Strallen. When she was eleven she saw her elder sister Scarlett play the same role.

“I remember loving the show when I saw Scarlett in it,” Strallen says, “so I knew I was joining a brilliant show, but I absolutely loved the books as a child as well. My mum used to read the Mary Poppins books to myself and my younger sister to go to sleep to when we were really little, so I knew the books even better than the film.”

From her name alone it seemed that Strallen was destined to dance, ever since she was christened Syphilde Charity Vaigncourt-Strallen, with her first name in honour of her mother's favourite ballet, Les Sylphides. Strallen's now better known nickname came about after her mother noticed her daughter's resemblance to French ballerina, Zizi Jeanmarie.

Strallen is actually the third sister to step into the spotlight following Scarlett and her other sister Summer, with a fourth, Saskia, also an actress. The quartet form part of a musical theatre dynasty, with their parents Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford having both appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber's T.S. Eliot inspired musical, Cats, which Strallen's aunt, Bonnie Langford, also starred in. Strallen herself has also appeared in Cats, though despite growing up surrounded by performers in an environment she shrugs off as “just really normal,” things might have worked out differently.

While all the Strallens' first experience of performing was at their grand-mother's dance school, unlike her elder sisters who pursued acting at Arts Educational performing school, Strallen won an academic scholarship and seemed destined for something different.

“At the time the school was the third most academic in the country or something,” Strallen says, “and I thought, well, if I've got in, I must be quite clever, but it wasn't right for me. I was really badly bullied, and I was always longing to go to Arts Ed. Then after two terms I went home and cried to my mum to let me go, and I auditioned and got in.”

In Strallen's own words, “the doors opened to me, and I started seeing agents and going for auditions, and then getting jobs, so I've been really lucky.”

In keeping with her more academic background, Strallen has begun writing comedy sketches based on things she overheard on her travels. More recently she has adapted this into a sit-com idea.

“It's something to do on tour,” she says. “Hopefully something will come of it at some point, but it's too early yet to start handing scripts out or anything like that.”

While she won't be drawn on the subject of her dramatic endeavours, given her background, she does point out that “It's pretty obvious. My family are kind of a novelty thing, so they're asking to be written about. My grand-mother is such a character, and as Bonnie Langford's mum was the ultimate showbiz mother. She's this infamous person people know about, and at the moment has kind of turned into the lead character of the sit-com without me realising it.”

Despite her family background, the Strallens have rarely worked together, and are unlikely to be seen onstage as a musical theatre equivalent of the Redgraves just yet.

“My elder sister Scarlett's really keen for us being seen as individual performers rather than as a clan,” Strallen says, “and I kind of agree with her. There's lovely people in this business, but there are also people who like to criticise and compare. Of course, there's competition between us all, but it's a healthy competition rather than sibling rivalry, and if we did a show together I think we might be compared unfairly, and I think that's a dangerous road to go down. I think it's better to sit on the outside of each other's work and be proud of each other.”

While Strallen's devotion to her family is plain, it is also wonderfully in keeping with the sentiments posited by Mary Poppins herself.

“When I was younger I always used to think that I had to go down the same road as my sisters and do what they do,” she says, “but now I realise I don't have to at all. I only have to do whatever makes me happy.”

Mary Poppins, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 27-May 21

Sir Cameron Mackintosh - Mary Poppins and the Festival Theatre

For producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who first brought Mary Poppins to the stage more than a decade ago, Zizi Strallen was a natural to play the title role.

“My connection with the Langford-Strallen family goes back a long way,” he says. “They've become this wonderful theatrical dynasty, and in a way I'm their sort of fairy godfather. I was fascinated to see Zizi in The Car Man. I couldn't stop watching her. She had that hauteur about her, and you need some of that if you're going to play Mary Poppins, something that's neither inside or outside, but that goes beyond. I remember thinking watching her that if she can sing and act half as well as she can dance that she'd be perfect for it. Fortunately the genes and genius of the Langford-Strallen family worked in my favour once more.

Mary Poppins marks the first time internationally renowned impresario has brought a show to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. When it last toured, Mary Poppins was seen at Edinburgh Playhouse, but Mackintosh is keen to forge an ongoing relationship with his current Edinburgh hosts.

“I've wanted to work at the Festival Theatre for years,” he says, “but there were never long enough slots for me to make it work. That's nothing against the Playhouse, which is a wonderful theatre, but I was always very sad that I couldn't take shows like Oliver to the Festival Theatre, and only when it was reorganised a couple of years ago and we could look at doing longer runs was I able to think about bringing something like Mary Poppins here.”

While no other shows from Mackintosh's stable have yet been announced for Edinburgh runs at the Festival Theatre, given that a tour of Miss Saigon is scheduled for 2017, it shouldn't be too long before we see a large-scale Mackintosh production arriving here.

“We're having a wonderful time working with the Festival Theatre on Mary Poppins,” Mackintosh says, “and it won't be the last time we'll be here.”



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