WHEN thinking of the musical, “Mary Poppins”, I’m guessing the world of commercial banking doesn’t pop into your mind.
It’s far more likely that you’re busy trying to remember how to pronounce “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or wondering how the main actors will dance across chimney tops.
And yet, as I discover when I meet Christine Wallace, playing the principal role of Mrs Winifred Banks in the coming Free-Rain Theatre Company production of the show, banks and banking are very much to the fore.
Indeed, when the late Walt Disney and his team set about adapting the “Mary Poppins” novels by Australian author PL Travers, it was the story of Mr Banks and his dysfunctional family that formed the backbone of the plot we now know.
For in the story, husband, wife and children are close to estrangement when Mary, the unorthodox nanny from who-knows-where, “pops in” to show how a loving family should be.
To be sure, as Wallace explains to me while we swing around the red velvet drapes at historic Albert Hall (the nearest thing to Edwardian England that we could find in Canberra) Mrs Banks, as a member of the Suffragette movement and a former actress, has ideas of her own, articulated in the song “Being Mrs Banks”. And Mr Banks, an honourable, upright member of his profession, is over-preoccupied with choosing between corruptible and more honourable clients.
But all that, as 10-year-old Jake Keen, from Tuggeranong, and 10-year-old Victoria Hunt, from Ngunnawal, tell me, is no excuse for being remote and unfeeling parents. They play the Banks children, Michael and Victoria.
Luckily, as we know, Mary turns up in the nick of time, after the household has gone through six successive nannies.
“Yes, we are really, really naughty,” Jake explains, “but we’re crying out for attention,” Victoria adds, “especially from our dad, who rejects us even when we say goodnight.” She gets to speak the line: “I hate him, and he’s mean and rotten”.
But that all changes when Mary Poppins arrives on the scene like “a breath of fresh air”, as Jake and Victoria chorus. “She is stern, but not stern and she takes us on all the adventures. She makes our toys come to life and the statues in the park come to life.”
Even better, Mr Banks’ frosty goodnights become warmer and, by the end, he even flies kites with his kids.
Mrs Banks could be seen as playing second fiddle to the tough Mary, but the children assure me that even though they’re sorry to see her go, they’re ready to resume a loving relationship with their mother and father. “We have a mum and dad again,” as Jake says.
Wallace is entertaining us with “A Spoonful of Sugar”. She’s an experienced singer who trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and a former on-camera journalist with WIN TV, who now works as media co-ordinator for the AFP. But she’s lucky to get a word in, with two such articulate young performers as Jake and Victoria obviously already across the show.
Wallace confirms everything the children say, also using the expression “a breath of fresh air”. Mary, she says, “shakes the family up in the best possible way – it’s very uplifting”.
With the role of the diva Carlotta behind her in Free-Rain’s “The Phantom of the Opera”, the easily flustered Mrs Banks is a venture into the comic idiom, something new for Wallace, who once played Juliet in her school Shakespeare production.
When Mary Poppins begins, she explains, Mrs Banks is thoroughly miserable, she is out of her depth socially, trying to work out her role in high society and she simply doesn’t know how to manage her children. Mary shows her how, before she “pops out” of their lives.
So the show is about magic, imagination, tough love, honour versus affection, but above all, it’s about family.
“Mary Poppins”, Canberra Theatre, March 12-29, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.