“songs are bold and brassy, but with moments of pathos and humour”
A Broadway hit from 1959 (book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer), Once Upon a Mattress is a musical comedy based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea. Or rather, it takes the essence of that story and has a whole lot of fun elaborating it.
It’s the year 1428 and Prince Dauntless (Theo Toksvig-Stewart) wants to be married, but his domineering, utterly insufferable mother – Queen Aggravain, brilliantly brought to life by Julia Faulkner – wants to keep him for herself, believing no other woman will ever be good enough for her precious son. Perfectly adequate princesses are unfairly rejected for failing the queen’s impossible tests in a pattern that seems destined to repeat itself forever. But when the 13th contender arrives, everything changes.
Beth Burrows is stunning as the sassy, irreverent Princess Winnifred the Woebegone – an exotic creature from the marshlands. Not only is she incredibly animated and full of energy, but she also has perfect comic timing and makes every moment count. There’s a real sparkle in her performance that makes her very compelling to watch.
Steve Watts as King Sextimus has the challenging role of having to communicate only with hand gestures and facial expressions, owing to being under a spell that prevents him from speaking. Given that, it’s remarkable how well he articulates emotion and communicates so lucidly with both the cast and audience.
A six-piece band led by Jessica Douglas provides a lively and often ambitious musical accompaniment that’s punchy and precise. Mary Rodgers’ songs (with lyrics by Marshall Barer) are bold and brassy, but with moments of pathos and humour. They are clever, too – see ‘The Minstrel, the Jester and I’, which plays with the notion of the king being mute by leaving spaces at the end of certain lines in place of the rhyming lyric you expect to hear.
Giulia Scrimieri’s simple yet fluidly effective set features a couple of platforms for dancing on, and screens that can be wheeled around. Colourful and inventive medieval costumes also add to the sense of vibrancy.
There are plenty of laughs, but the plot is sufficiently well constructed that there are several interwoven strands to be followed through. One thread isn’t quite tied up: we see the minstrel charm the wizard into revealing the secret test for the princess, but then Winnifred appears to pass it without any assistance. Being a ‘real’ princess she’s sensitive enough that a single pea beneath 20 mattresses prevents her sleeping, and the minstrel’s plan for her to cheat is bafflingly not referred to again. However, this little mystery in no way impairs the enjoyment of a continually rewarding experience.
Another major plus point is the way that each character, from the jester to the minstrel narrator, is given their own moment of focus. This even-handed character development keeps your interest throughout while helping the show build to a hugely satisfying resolution.
Ably directed by Mark Giesser, Alces Productions’ Once Upon a Mattress is a funny and joyful production of this rarely seen gem.
“The script is delightfully playful and does not take itself too seriously”
Overlooking the banks of the River Thames, The Mill at Sonning is the UK’s only permanent dinner theatre. Wooden beams and a working water mill decorate the bar and restaurant and beautiful grounds surround this impressive venue. The theatre’s out-of-the-way location makes it the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery to unfold …
Towards Zero is a detective novel by the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie and is thus packed with suspense, atmosphere and unexpected twists and turns. Adapted for the theatre in 1956 by Gerald Verner, The Mill at Sonning’s production is no doubt aided by its director Brian Blessed’s friendship with Christie as a young actor at Nottingham Repertory Theatre.
The play is quintessential Christie. Elderly matriarch Lady Tressillian (Hildegard Neil) has invited her wards for their annual visit to her home at Gull’s Point. There is cause for celebration: Thomas Royde (Patrick Myles) has just returned from a seven-year stint overseas. However, Nevile Strange (Rob Heanley) creates tension by inviting both his ex-wife Audrey (Kate Tydman) and new wife Kay (Bethan Nash) to join him, the latter of whom retaliates by socialising with old flame Ted Latimer (Duncan Wilkins). The visit soon takes a horrifying turn when Lady Tressillian’s ill-treated dogsbody companion Mary Aldin (Rosalind Blessed) is found passed out and a dead body discovered soon after. With no possible motive, Superintendent Battle (George Telfer), his nephew Inspector Leach (Chris Pybus) and criminology enthusiast Matthew Treves (Noel White) must put their heads together to solve the most confusing of cases.
Each ticket includes a two-course meal in the restaurant before the show. The audience is spoiled for choice with a delicious main course buffet before the tantalising dessert is brought to the table. After a leisurely lunch, guests can wander around the grounds or enjoy a drink in the bar before showtime.
The theatre is surprisingly intimate, and the semi-round stage allows the audience to feel involved in the performance. The set (Dinah England) consists of an intricately designed living room with doors to the left and right of the stage. A raised platform and bay windows form the backdrop. Seating arrangements and a drinks trolley decorate the space. The lighting (Matthew Biss) and pale-coloured furniture are successful in making the room appear airy and that of a summer home. Lighting is also used well elsewhere to spotlight and cast suspicion on different characters.
The script is delightfully playful and does not take itself too seriously. There are some wonderfully self-referential moments within the production such as when Royde turns on the radio to list to a show entitled ‘Red Herring’ shortly after the audience sees an argument between two individuals. Royde also quips that the Edgar Wallace novel he is reading is ‘not as good as Christie’ much to the amusement of the audience. The costumes (Natalie Titchener) are pleasingly fitting with Nash’s poppy dress of particular note.
Neil is the standout star and commands the stage and her fellow actors. White comes into his element in the second half of the play and brilliantly describes the concept of ‘Zero Hour’ – the time of the murder which is a culmination of many different circumstances converging at one point – which underlines the play’s premise. Pybus is given most of the play’s most humorous lines and delivers them well.
The beautiful grounds, scrumptious pre-show lunch and wonderful theatre makes Blessed’s production of Towards Zero a winning combination. Visiting The Mill at Sonning is much more than just seeing a play, it is a unique experience and is a definite ‘must’ for every theatregoer.