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
Once Upon a Mattress
Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 29th March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: