This festive season, one of Southwark’s truly delightful hidden gems plays host to Once Upon a Mattress, a 1950s musical adaption of classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea that claims to reveal a more accurate, untold version of events.
At first, this production appears to lack purpose, losing sight of what it wants to be; is it a bawdy take on an old classic aimed at adults or a wholesome piece of children’s entertainment? Admittedly, Mary Rodgers’s score and Marshall Barer’s lyrics are dated and do not really provide material of a consistently high quality for the cast and creative team to work with, but if this is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek version of a timeless classic then numerous tricks and opportunities to raise laughs are completely missed by various cast members.
Purpose rapidly loses importance, though, as the performance gets into full swing, the fantastic array of talent on stage unfolds and we are treated to some superb acting and polished singing and dancing. The chorus ensemble is particularly strong, drawing all it possibly can from the score with some soaring harmonies and pristine piano accompaniment from musical director, Alex Parker. Kirk Jameson’s direction comes into its inventive own with his decision to intermittently have the ensemble both observe and contribute to the action taking place on stage from the back of the auditorium, whether this be singing or tap dancing.
This is a predominantly youthful cast, with several people certain of bright futures. Ryan Limb’s Minstrel opens the show beautifully and draws the audience in immediately, Stiofan O'Doherty is dashing and believable as Sir Harry, his beautiful singing voice verging on the operatic as he woos his way through a tricky situation, Jenny O'Leary, lovable and compelling, provides the perfect non-traditional heroine in Princess Winifred and her Prince Dauntless, played faultlessly by Mark Anderson is the archetypal, hapless Mummy’s boy. As for the more senior members of the ensemble, Paddy Glynn’s Queen Aggravain is suitably malevolent as she enlists distinguished David Pendlebury’s wizard to devise tests designed to stump her son’s sequence of potential wives. Denis Quilligan, as the mute King Sextimus, displays the most skilful comic timing of the piece throughout several scenes.
An enjoyable evening that provides a pleasant and quirky alternative to the traditional family pantomime in an intimate setting.
-by Helen Macdonald