zizi top

Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins. Photo: Johan Persson

ZIZI Strallen is part of an acting and musical theatre dynasty and one where playing Mary Poppins is becoming almost a family tradition.

Older sister Scarlett played the role in the West End, twice, on Broadway and, just for good measure, Sydney.

Her mother and father, Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, were both in the original production of Cats while her aunt is West End and Broadway star Bonnie Langford.

Another older sister, Summer, originated the role of Dale Tremont in the new adaptation of Top Hat which passed through the Hippodrome in 2011 on its way to the West End, while her younger sister Sasi was in the tour of Fame which came through the Midlands two years ago.

So was there any danger of the young Zizi not going on the stage? She said: “I think I've always wanted to, really. When I was eleven, I got into quite an academic school, whereas both of my sisters had been to arts educational schools and done vocational courses. But eventually, I ended up going into arts ed anyway because even at that age, I could tell it was what I wanted to do.”

It was not all cues and curtain calls for the young Zizi though. “My mum didn't actually do all that much when I was growing up – she was in more shows when my sisters were younger, although I do remember seeing her in Dr Doolittle at the Hammersmith Apollo. It's lovely to know that my parents are such good performers, though.”

Zizi in Cats

Zizi as Demeter in Cats. Photo: Alessandro Pinna

Her own career had its own early ups and, when she was four, a somewhat dramatic down, so to speak. “I performed with Michael Barrymore on his show. We did a big song and dance number called How Lucky Can You Get? and at the end of it he picked me up and dropped me into the orchestra pit where one of the dancers caught me. It got a lot of attention in the papers at the time, so that was quite significant for me.”

The unusual exit . . . stage down was apparently watched by Prince Charles whose momentary look of alarm fanned the flames of publicity so from there Zizi’s career could only go up . . . and up . . . and up.

Her CV includes roles such as Tracy Turnblad’s nerdy best friend Penny Pingleton in Hairspray and she appeared at the Hippodrome two years ago as Demeter in Cats, a show, incidentally, she first saw when she was about three. “It was the most magical thing I'd ever seen and even though I spent most of it frightened out of my wits, I remember loving it.”

It was when she was appearing as Lana in Sir Matthew Bourne’s dance piece The Car Man that she was spotted by Sir Cameron Mackintosh who cast her in the role of Maria in his new production.

Mind you, she must have been good as she won Outstanding Female Performance at the National Dance Awards for her role in The Car Man.

Sir Matthew was also choreographer for Mary Poppins, with a book by yet another theatrical knight, Sir Julian Fellowes incidentally, so, recognising her ability, added extra dance steps to the eponymous role but Strallen is wary of being seen as an actor who dances or a dancer who can act, saying: “I've always tried to work really hard at everything and to try my hand at any opportunity that comes up. I don't want to pigeon-hole myself because there are lots of other people who will do that for me, so I try to keep as many doors open as possible.”

So which door would she open next? “I never really know what to say, partly because there are brilliant new shows coming out all the time. What I can say is that if something else came along like Mary Poppins where I get to dance, act and sing my socks off, I don't think I would be able to turn it down!”

Mary Poppins is a co-production with Disney and Strallen is no stranger to the Burbank media giant having made a brief appearance in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, which she says “was absolutely incredible! I was one of the prince's guests in the ballroom scene. The whole set was stunning. I was doing very long hours in a corset and a crinoline dress and very uncomfortable shoes, but it was all worth it because we looked so beautiful. I felt like an actual princess.”

zizi in car man

Zizi as Lana in The Car Man. Photo: Chris Mann

She added: “I would love to do more screen work. I've done quite a lot of work in the dance industry now, and Mary Poppins is one of the biggest female roles in musical theatre, so I feel like the screen would definitely be my next big conquer!”

But more important things await the practical Mary Poppins who descends by umbrella into Birmingham next week and Zizi Strallen is looking forward to shopping in the city, and, having loved the Bullring in the past can now point her brolly at Grand Central.

So with a quartet of sisterly talent what about any Strallen sisters appearing together? “I don't know. One day we might do a concert together or something like that, but so far, we've all tried to made sure that we stay quite individual. Also more practically, we're always busy rehearsing for different things and we live quite far apart now, so it's would be more a question of whether we could find the time than anything.”

Not that Mary Poppins needs to enlighten us on that point. Strallen’s favourite line in the show “is when Mr Banks says, ‘Mary Poppins, would you kindly explain?’ and I say, ‘First of all, I'd like to make one thing quite clear: I never explain anything.’ It's just such a brilliantly cheeky, very Mary Poppins thing to say." 

Roger Clarke

So with no explanation needed . . . Mary Poppins is at Birmingham Hippodrome from 9 March until 23 April 2016.

The production will be returning to the West End after an international tour opening for an extended run at the Prince of Wales Theatre on 23 October 2019

Feature index Home Hippodrome