Tag Archives: Giulia Scrimieri

How to Build a Better Tulip

How to Build a Better Tulip


Upstairs at the Gatehouse

HOW TO BUILD A BETTER TULIP at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse


How to Build a Better Tulip

Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together


To set the theme for the evening, the song Tulips from Amsterdam provides the somewhat tongue-in-cheek auditorium entry music, followed by other songs evoking buttercups and roses. Perhaps there is no available pop song concerning petunias as that would have been the other relevant flowery reference for this amiable comedy written and directed by Mark R Giesser.

A minimalist drab-coloured set (Designer Mollie Cheek) predominantly represents a greenhouse at the University of South Holland (Lincolnshire) where plant genetics are being researched. Faded tulip designs on delft tiles give a hint of historic Dutchness. A broadsheet notice on the wall informs us that a monetary prize of ten thousand guilders should be awarded to any person who succeeds in the breeding of a perfect Black Tulip. And therein lies the basis of the plot, loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip, and making reference to the historical tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland.

Splashes of colour appear as university researcher Audrey Braddock (Jill Greenacre) in red corduroys and amanuensis Sheila Crouch (Bryony Tebbutt) with yellow bobblehat, frenetically enter. Tebbutt displays youthful exuberance in a deliberate and delightfully quirky manner. Greenacre’s speedy and breathy delivery means some dialogue is sadly lost in this opening scene. We are introduced to Braddock’s daughter Perci (Beth Burrows) whose latest boyfriend is petunia researcher Adrian Vanderpol (Christopher Killik) and then things turn strange. Alone in her room, Braddock begins to talk to a voice in her head – Carolus Hoofdorn (Richard Lynson) a seventeenth century Dutch tulip enthusiast. Vanderpol too communicates with the voice in his head – Cornelia Vanderpol (Tebbutt again). And when everyone appears on stage together, the two Dutch puritans are able to talk to each other too. Nice period costumes here (Giulia Scrimieri) for the historical Dutch, less convincing accents.

As it appears, Braddock and Vanderpol – driven by the two ghosts in their heads – are covertly endeavouring to create the elusive black tulip, espionage is undertaken, Perci is involved with the FBI and honey-research, Carolus sporadically breaks out into folksong, Cornelia inexplicably cannot abide the songs of Elvis, Vanderpol is arrested for environmental terrorism and tulip bulbs are identified as the next potential WMD. It’s all rather a muddle.

The character of Sergeant Ellsworth, managed stolidly enough by Lynson, sums up the difficulty of the play; he is given neither the insight of a probing detective nor the comedic possibilities of a bumbling village Plod. Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together. With energy and fine expression she appears to understand and believe in all the shenanigans and provides a central performance to savour.

Perci tells us at one point, “It all sounds more complicated than it needs to be” and I could almost hear the audience reply, “hear hear”.


Reviewed on 8th November 2022

by Phillip Money

Photography by Flavia Fraser-Cannon



Previously reviewed at this venue:


Forever Plaid | ★★★★ | June 2021


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Once Upon a Mattress


Finborough Theatre

Once Upon a Mattress

Once Upon a Mattress

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Reviewed – 7th March 2020



“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.


Reviewed by Stephen Fall

Photography by Andreas Lambis


Upstairs at the Gatehouse thespyinthestalls

Once Upon a Mattress

Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 29th March


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Strike Up The Band | ★★★★ | March 2019
The Marvelous Wonderettes | ★★★★ | April 2019
Flat Out | ★★★★ | June 2019
Agent 14 | | August 2019
Pericles, Prince Of Tyre | ★★★ | August 2019
Working | ★★★★ | September 2019
A Modest Little Man | ★★★★ | October 2019
I Do! I Do! | ★★★½ | October 2019
42nd Street | ★★★★ | December 2019
Elton John: It’s A Little Bit Funny | ★★★★ | February 2020


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