“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.
“an incredibly rich and vibrant affair that will fill you with a sense of well-being while making you laugh again and again”
Every year Andrew Pollard brings his remarkable pantomime to Greenwich Theatre, and every year it surprises and delights. The stories may change, but the essence remains the same – a hilarious and audacious roller-coaster of a show. Sleeping Beauty is another great victory for this supremely talented writer, actor and director.
Forget the usual panto formula. While Pollard clearly loves the genre and pays homage to its key elements – not least, by embodying the archetypal Dame – his take on the form is refreshingly different and he makes Sleeping Beauty work on multiple levels. For children, it’s excitingly full of colour, adventure and impressive pyrotechnic effects, with appealing interactive moments – such as being handed magic moon rocks and urged to throw them at the stage. For adults, it’s a feast of cheeky wit with a very funny script that weaves in local and topical references (Plumstead, Blackheath, Nigel Farage, Prince Andrew) alongside plenty of daft innuendo. It’s a treat to watch the actors trying to make each other laugh, going off-piste and breaking the fourth wall.
The scenes are interspersed with – and often built around – wonderful pop music. There are adaptations of songs by The Beatles, Chic, Boney M and The Proclaimers, among others, played live and loud by the small in-house band led by Musical Director ‘Uncle’ Steve Markwick.
The story veers wildly away from the classic fairytale, but just about retains enough of the key elements to justify the title. Ewan and Anastasia, the young couple at the centre of the plot, are confidently played by Regan Burke and Esme Bacalla-Hayes. Theirs is not a typical boy-meets-girl situation. With the help of a kindly fairy, Ewan finds himself transported from the London of 1969 to the Russia of 1869. Masquerading as ‘Major Thomas’ – you can see the David Bowie connection a mile off, and sure enough they include ‘Space Oddity’ as one of the songs – he falls in love with the daughter of Tsar Ivan the Slightly Irritable. But Anastasia is bewitched and left to sleep for 100 years by the evil villain Rasputin. The ‘mad monk’ is wonderfully brought to life by the ultra-charismatic Anthony Spargo, who knows exactly how to get the audience hissing at him and his dastardly plans.
Quickly dispensing with familiar Sleeping Beauty motifs, the narrative races off into a gloriously ridiculous saga about travelling through time and space, plus a thread about Greenwich Theatre itself as way of celebrating its 50th anniversary. Indeed, Ewan is based on Ewan Hooper, a real-life local actor who saved the theatre from demolition in the 1960s.
One of the highlights of each annual pantomime is the spectacle of Andrew Pollard’s outlandish costumes, which defy gravity and belief, so special credit must go to the team of wardrobe designers. Utterly inspired visuals in which adults are turned into babies also support several moments of comedy that go beyond merely funny or clever to approach a sort of surreal high art.
Only one criticism: at times the music is too loud and drowns out the dialogue. It’s not the sort of show in which you need to hear every word, but it is a shame that a few of the jokes are lost for this reason.
That point aside, this is an incredibly rich and vibrant affair that will fill you with a sense of well-being while making you laugh again and again.