Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Once Upon A Mattress - review

Written by: Caroline Mathias (@caroveraclare)

Union Theatre, London

Saturday night was freezing, and the wood-burning stove in the Union Theatre bar was very popular among the patrons of Once Upon a Mattress – The untold story of ‘The Princess and the Pea’. Formerly a Broadway hit, it’s a musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s well-loved fairytale. I’m feeling festive already. 

Prince Dauntless is looking for a princess, and it’s in everyone’s interests to find him one: ‘Throughout the land no one may wed, ‘till Dauntless shares his wedding bed’. But it seems unlikely his mother, Queen Aggravain (Paddy Glyn) will ever find someone good enough for her precious son – and the King (Denis Quilligan) has no say in the matter, because he cannot speak at all until a curse has been lifted.

After the Minstrel’s prologue (Ryan Limb), An Opening for a Princess is a strong musical number with sharp, clever choreography. Apart from the frustrations endured by the courtiers waiting for Dauntless to settle down, Lady Larkin is having Sir Harry’s baby which gives them another reason to hurry things along. Harry goes to find a bride for Dauntless, and returns with Princess Winnifred the Woebegone – who is certainly not what the Queen had in mind…

Jenny O’Leary as Winnifred is impressive throughout, with a voice that could fill much bigger theatres than this. Stiofán O’Doherty and Kimberly Blake (Sir Harry and Lady Larkin respectively) are also very strong. Prince Dauntless could easily turn into a bit of a drip but Mark Anderson pitches him just right - eager and likeable.

Racky Plews’ choreography, particularly in An Opening for a Princess, The Spanish Panic and Quiet, is really effective in a relatively small playing space and the ensemble look and sound very good. The audience are very close to the stage here, and the cast skilfully navigate the line between addressing us directly and singing out to the horizon.

Scene changes are achieved using a series of curtains that are drawn back by the ensemble to reveal the different ‘rooms’ of the castle – there is something of the ‘travelling theatre’ about this simple, effective device. The rug that is rolled out before the Queen and King wherever they go gives their every entrance a sense of pomp and ceremony.

There are some lovely cutting lines and memorable tunes but much of the script doesn’t match these highs, and the songs vary - some lines just don’t scan very well. With flaws in the material, it’s largely thanks to the cast – including several very recent graduates – that the show hangs together as well as it does. It really needs a big final number to round the whole thing off and send us off into the night, but Mattress made me smile, made me laugh and is a good way to spend a frosty December evening.

This production runs until 5 January 2013
@TheUnionTheatre @mattresslondon

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