Mary Poppins star Zizi Strallen tells Liam Rudden about following in the footsteps of a showbiz family
SOARING high above the Grand Circle of the Festival Theatre, Zizi Strallen smiles serenely, umbrella in one hand, carpet bag in the other, as she flies off into the night sky... via a hole in the roof.
In their seats below, children wave as she passes, each convinced the elfin-like star of Mary Poppins is smiling specifically at them.
“It’s a wonderful way to end a show but I can’t see a thing,” confesses the 25-year-old.
“The auditorium appears pitch black because of the stage lights, so I can’t see any faces, but I can imagine them,” she smiles.
Growing up, Mary was a huge part of my life - I always wanted her to be our nanny, but never ever expected to play her.
Strallen made her maiden flight at the Festival Theatre on Wednesday. The moment Mary Poppins’ magic umbrella transports her skyward is the spectacular finale of Cameron Mackintosh’s acclaimed new production of the musical based on the stories by PL Travers and the 1964 movie, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Of course, once Strallen has been whisked through the ornate ceiling, she has just moments to get back to the stage. Out of sight of the audience, she must loose her flying harness and bolt back down to take her bow; graceful as a swan she ascends, then running like mad.
“That’s exactly how it goes. I fly through a hole in the ceiling and then run down for the curtain call, it’s different in every theatre.
“Here, I have to climb up a little ladder, then crouch through a tunnel, then down a little flight of steps, then down a big flight of steps... I’ve made it on time so far,” she laughs.
No stranger to the Festival Theatre, Strallen played Lana in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man there last year.
She reflects, “The auditorium is lovely. It’s exactly what you like as a performer; it’s just high enough, just wide enough and, last night it felt as if it was packed out.”
It was while dancing the role of Lana that the actress landed the role of Mary Poppins, much to her surprise.
“I love Mary Poppins. I watched the film religiously as a child and my mum read the books to me and my younger sister at night.
“So, growing up, Mary was a huge part of my life - I always wanted her to be our nanny, but never ever expected to play her,” she says.
“Even when I heard the tour was going out again, I never thought I’d get an audition because at the time I was playing Lana, this murderous female so far removed from Mary Poppins
“But they did. They called me,” she beams.
Born Sylphide Charity Vaigncourt-Strallen, Zizi hails from an acting dynasty. Both her parents appeared in the musical Cats; East-Enders star and song and dance legend Bonnie Langford is her aunt, and her sisters, Summer and Scarlett, are both musical theatre stars in their own right. Indeed, Scarlett has played Mary Poppins in London and on Broadway.
“When I was much younger, around 11, I definitely asked myself if I wanted to do this,” she reflects, when asked if life as an actor was the obvious path for her to follow.
“Then I went to Arts Educational drama school where I did vocational studies. It was there I realised this was exactly what I wanted to do, and that there was nothing else for me really.”
Coming into the business, she admits there was pressure to live up to the family reputation.
“It doesn’t bother me now, but when first starting out, I put pressure on myself. No one else did.
“It’s all just in your mind. You think every one is going to think you’re not as good... my sisters had done so well and I was so proud of them. As I’ve got older, I’ve realised we are all proud of each other and what we have done.”
Older sibling Scarlett, who now lives in New York, even shared some sisterly advice when she flew in to see Strallen in Mary Poppins recently.
“I asked her, ‘Was it weird watching it?’ And she said, ‘No, not at all,’ but that she was absolutely exhausted because she had done the whole thing with me in her head,” she laughs.
“She gave me a couple of pointers along the way too, like pace yourself; don’t sing out everything you’ve got in the first number as you have a long show to go.”
That said, Strallen has very much crafted her own unique nanny.
“I decided to play her exactly as I think of her and I had brilliant direction. Everyone was so helpful in bringing Mary out of me.
“I approached it as if I were Mary and, in rehearsals, saying the lines as me just sort of clicked.
“So she’s quite cheeky. I feel a lot of the Marys who went before said their lines straight, as they were written on the page, I try to put a little cheeky meaning behind the seriousness. Oh, and she can be very sarcastic. It’s fun to play about with that.”
• Mary Poppins, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, until 21 May, 7.30pm (matinees 2pm & 2.30pm), £28-£61, 0131-529 6000