Friday, 13 March 2020

REVIEW: Once Upon A Mattress at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Mary Rodger’s musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea is rarely revived in London, so Mark Giesser’s production of Once Upon A Mattress is welcome, but ultimately disappointing.

In a kingdom ruled by Queen Aggravain, none shall marry until Prince Dauntless The Drab finds a bride, who must pass the Queen’s test to prove she is a genuine Princess. As the show begins, Princess number 12 is found to be unsuitable, and the search continues. Enter Princess Winifred, a gutsy tomboy who arrives by swimming the moat, proving that Princesses need not fit the stereotype. The show carries a strong message, and has great subtext, but this production tends to linger on the surface, offering a two-dimensional view.

Rodgers’ exciting score and Marshall Barer’s intelligent lyrics make a winning combination, but more often than not, the songs are oversung, and brilliant lyrics are ignored. Much of the comedy here is misjudged or missed altogether, as if Giesser and his cast do not understand the text. A prime example of this is the show’s most famous song, Shy, which is written completely ironically. Princess Winifred is a huge character, with an equally huge voice, so this declaration of her shyness is ridiculous. However, in this production, Beth Burrows (Winifred) performs it as the opposite. She really is shy, so much so that we cannot actually hear most of her vocal. How frustrating, to see a Fringe production where everybody wears a microphone (a rare thing), and yet vocals are still lost. In the full company numbers, the mix is wrong; clearly there are some issues with Andrew Michie’s sound design. Burrows makes some confusing choices, and ultimately is not very likeable as Winifred. Her vocals feel uncertain, and some of the bigger notes are uncomfortable.

Rachael Louise Miller and Scott Armstrong are the saving graces as Lady Larkin and Sir Harry respectively. Their vocals in both In A Little Way and Yesterday I Loved You are pleasing. Their chemistry is strong, but again, some of the more intelligent lyrics are thrown away.

As the narrating Minstrel, Matthew James Willis is too gentle, and almost drowsy. His voice is sweet but the performance needs much more excitement and thrill. As Prince Dauntless, Theo Toksvig-Stewart needs much more charisma, playing too heavily the drab side of the young monarch. It’s so important that the audience is behind him, wanting him to find a bride and therefore overthrow the Queen, but he is too limp. 

Perhaps the strongest in the cast is Julia Faulkner’s Queen Aggravain, pulling the strings and dismissing every suitor for her son’s hand in marriage. Like her contemporaries, Faulkner could go further; the performance tends to stay on one level. It would be great to see her let rip, rather than keeping everything controlled and contained. I’d be very keen to see Faulkner in other roles.

The highlight of this production is the six-piece band, led by Jessica Douglas, which brings great excitement to the proceedings. Though the cast sometimes falls short, the band always delivers. Opening for a Princess, Spanish Panic and Song of Love are vibrant and fun, whilst Many Moons Ago is sweet and sincere.

Chris Whittaker has a very difficult job as choreographer, as he generally only has two or three actors to work with for each song, meaning the big numbers do not have much impact. The choreography is fun, but not always very tight. 

Guilia Scrimeiri’s set design is a mixed bag. The backdrops and proscenium are beautifully painted, but the wheeled flats are noisy and unnecessary. On the other hand, her costumes are impressive, and beautifully made by Hania Kosewicz. There is also great use of magic, thanks to the consultancy of Josh Benson.

At the performance I attended, there was little laughter from the audience, with jokes being thrown away or failing to land. Under different direction, this production could really have thrilled. It’s a sweet show, but needs work.

Review by Ian Marshall

Rating: ★★
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