‘Poppins’ has her Bert

LONDON — Gavin Lee, the spindly British performer from such briefly glimpsed West End musicals as “A Saint She Ain’t” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” has been tapped to play Bert in “Mary Poppins,” a show whose longevity is all but assured. Lee will essay the role played by Dick Van Dyke on screen and for which Tony-winner Alan Cumming was initially wooed. Rehearsals begin July 19.

Also aboard the stage tuner: Rosemary Ashe (Miss Andrew, a part not found in the 1964 film) and “Journey’s End’s” superlative David Haig (Mr. Banks) in roles taken at the workshop by Julia McKenzie and Alex Jennings. “Poppins,” opening in December at the Prince Edward Theater, marks the second major musical where the ebullient Ashe has benefited from an assignment where McKenzie was reluctant to tread — Ashe joined the Mack-backed “Witches of Eastwick,” for which she received a 2001 Olivier nod, after McKenzie passed on the role.

As for Lee going where Cumming didn’t, the growing consensus seems to be that the title “Mary Poppins” is this show’s star, so that big-name casting per se isn’t required. In any case, the musical is said to be way out in front in the box office race among the autumn’s Big Three, with “The Producers” some way behind, followed by the first of the trio to open, “The Woman In White.”

RECORD BOOKS
Building an immortal ‘Mousetrap’

As regards longevity, are there any records left to be broken when it comes to “The Mousetrap,” whose half-century birthday milestone nearly 18 months ago is already receding into memory? Yes, actually, as producer Stephen Waley-Cohen was quick to point out at a recent lunchtime pour for the Agatha Christie thriller at the Savoy Hotel.

March 25 marked the play’s 30th anniversary at the 542-seat St. Martin’s Theater, where the show transferred in 1974, having before that lasted more than two decades at the smaller Ambassadors Theater next door. The mystery’s tenancy is good news for Lord Willoughby de Broke , whose family built the St. Martin’s in 1916 and owns it to this day: After all, when theater owners talk of putting a playhouse away, they aren’t usually referring to a production that will probably outlive us all.

And what of “The Mousetrap’s” actual merit? Ah, there’s a question, with Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, admitting to Variety that Dame Agatha’s “Witness for the Prosecution” remains, “in my opinion, a more original play,” albeit one that is “much more complicated” to put on. Richard Attenborough, one of the play’s original stars, cited an “infinitely better” play, “The Rape of the Belt,” in which he subsequently starred in 1957 at the Piccadilly Theater: no plans, as yet, for that to be revived.

Still, there’s scant point biting the hand that has made you part of history. “The Mousetrap,” says Attenborough, “has to be the defining production in the British theater.” Adds Prichard: “What is a good play? If it’s something that inspires enjoyment in everyone who sees it, then ‘The Mousetrap’ is a good play.”

BURROWED TIME
Exit, covered by dirt

The Royal Court Theater Upstairs production of Vassily Sigarev‘s “Ladybird” has now come and gone, but one can’t let the evening pass without mentioning the extraordinary exit made by one of its characters. The play otherwise was unexceptionally dreary, a wallow in the wasteland that is apparently synonymous with contemporary Russia — at least according to Sigarev, whose three Court entries to date suggest a country made up of what “Ladybird” calls “the walking dead.”

Not walking, on this evidence, so much as burrowing. In a vanishing act to rival the famous stage direction from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” “exit, pursued by bear,” actor Burn Gorman‘s heroin-addicted Slavik throws himself headfirst into a forbidding mound of dirt and debris and proceeds to slither down into it, not resurfacing until the curtain call. There will surely be performances this year to match Gorman’s, but few actors in a long time have been quite so agile, not to mention filthy, for their art.

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