Not many actors can say they have followed up appearing on stage as a murderer with a stint as one of the most-loved children’s characters of all time. Well, unless you’re Zizi Strallen, that is.
The 26-year-old is in the final throes of rehearsals ahead of Mary Poppins’ arrival on the Dubai Opera stage on Monday, May 1. But even after taking the show on a successful UK tour, Strallen remains a little in shock at getting the call from legendary director Cameron Mackintosh.
“At the time I was doing The Car Man for Matthew Bourne where I was playing a sort of murderess, which is very different to Mary Poppins!” she tells Time Out. “Cameron Mackintosh saw me in that and for some reason thought, ‘Yes! She’ll be great for Mary!’
“I don’t know how that mind worked but it’s brilliant and I am so thankful [for the chance].”
Strallen has flourished in the role, and young as she may be, her on-stage dynamic with the actors who play Jane and Michael Banks (the children who, in the story, she is hired to take care of) is as natural as it seems.
“I’ve done a lot of teaching over the last few years, and I had a lot to do with helping bring up my little sister and things like that, so it kind of came naturally,” she says.
There are ten children involved in the show who perform on a rotating basis (to give them a much-needed break!) and, as I’m sure any parents reading this can well imagine, provide the rest of the cast and crew of the show with much-needed entertainment.
“I absolutely love working with the kids, they’re such characters! They’re hilarious and they always make me laugh, so it’s been great,” she says.
“It really keeps the show fresh and stops me from doing the same show every single night.” It can be easy, she adds, to end up doing the same old routine for every performance. But when you’ve got so many children with fresh perspectives and new personalities, it means you can go out on the stage every night and have fun with it.
And Strallen has been embracing her childish side, too, zooming around the set which has no less than 25 flying elements to it. “I’m an absolute adrenaline junkie in that sense, I love heights” she says. Though making it back down again for her bow at the end can be tough work.
“That can be the biggest challenge sometimes,” she says, laughing. “I’ll be really tired from doing the show, because I’m pretty much on for the entire thing, and then right at the end I’ve usually got to run really far to make it for my bow. It’s fun though!”
It’s a huge production. We’re talking a cast of 45, who are outnumbered by an even bigger technical team; it takes 49 crew to bring the magical stage show to life with lights, rigs, harnesses and more. To give you an idea, four of those technicians are dedicated to taking care of the 90 wigs needed for the show, while another four are solely in charge of flying operations.
It’s a story that’s fun, magical and, above all, heartwarming – but this is all stuff we already know. Parents, you’ll be pleased to hear that this is far from being a children’s play, and that it is discovering the sheer impishness of Mary that has delighted Strallen the most.
“When you’re young watching Mary Poppins, you kind of don’t realise that she’s actually quite cheeky and she can be a little bit sarcastic, which I absolutely love,” she says. “Especially in Julian Fellowes’ script, there’s a lot of witty humour that the adults in the audience will really get and maybe will sort of go over the top of the heads of the kids in the audience. I’ve revelled in that and [the cheekiness] is something Cameron has said he really likes in my performance.”
And as she prepares to bring Mary to Dubai, Strallen, the niece of stage legend Bonnie Langford, is hoping fans here will have a similar affection for her portrayal.
“There is this pressure you put on yourself but I just think, ‘I’m going to be the Mary that I think I should be’ and hope that everyone will love me as well!”
It’s a story that almost everyone in the audience will have grown up with, and one that is no doubt close to the hearts of many. So why does she think that it still has such widespread appeal? How does a story, about a nanny, set in Edwardian London, still resonate with families across the world in 2017?
“I think it’s to do with bringing people together, it’s that family thing and the way that the kids bring up the parents as much as the parents bring up the kids,” says Strallen.
“I think it’s that sense of everybody learning to be together and be a family and be thankful for what you have in the world. And I think that’s something that translates to every single person in the whole world.”
From Dhs250. May 1 to 25. Dubai Opera, www.dubaiopera.com (04 440 8888).