Upstairs at the Gatehouse – until 29 March 2020
Once Upon a Mattress has the look and feel of a high school production, put together by a bunch of excited 17-year-olds at the end of term. Adolescent humour runs through the piece, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of The Princess and the Pea and first seen on Broadway in 1959.
From the wicked Queen who can’t let go of her stupidly innocent son, from the dumbstruck King to the spunky swamp Princess who swims the moat and swashbuckles her way into favour, this is a show for the young, and the young at heart. Its high point should be the music, written by Mary Rodgers, the daughter of the man who composed all-time classics like The Sound of Music, South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel. On leaving, however, we couldn’t recall a single tune.
While the music is instantly unmemorable, there are some clever lyrics and Mark Giesser’s production exploits the youthful nature of the piece. The stage is set like a page from a book, the costumes look like they’ve come out of the dressing-up box in a stately home, and in the absence of plot and nuance, the cast push the action along with pantomimic exuberance. The six-piece orchestra under Jessica Douglas’ lively direction raises energy levels, and there are many gentle laughs along the way.
The star of the show is Beth Burrows as Princess Winnifred. From the minute she arrives on stage, we have a focus. Burrows connects with the audience instantly and pulls them in, exploiting the intimacy of the theatre Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Her comic timing, too, is excellent.
Families will enjoy Once Upon a Mattress – it’s simple and fun and has an amateur feel, although a huge amount of work has clearly gone into it. The characters are lightly drawn and while this gives the cast very little to work with, it makes it easy to follow. It’s certainly one to which I’d take children and teenagers.