Once Upon a Mattress [Union Theatre]

Once Upon a Mattress
A show with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Barer, Jay Thompson & Dean Fuller, based The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen

Princess Winnifred the Woebegone – Jenny O’Leary
Queen Aggravain – Paddy Glynn
King Sextimus the Silent – Denis Quilligan
Prince Dauntless – Mark Anderson
Lady Larken – Kimberly Blake
Sir Harry – Stiofan O’Doherty
The Minstrel – Ryan Limb
The Jester – Daniel Bartlett
The Wizard – David Pendlebury
Lady Merrill / Mabelle – Natalie Bennyworth
Sir Studley – Ashley Cooper
Knights – Matthew Daw & Gregory Hazel
Lady Lucille – Lucy Mills
Princess 12 / The Nightingale of Samarkand – Danielle Morris

Alex Parker (musical director & piano)

Kirk Jameson – Director
Sasha Regan – Producer
Racky Plews – Choreographer
Kingsley Hall – Designer
John Winn – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 2 December, 2012
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London

When Once Upon a Mattress opened at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in 1959 it established two things – that Mary Rodgers, daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, was a talented tunesmith in her own right, and that in Carol Burnett, who was making her first appearance on the New York stage, a star comedienne had been discovered. Burnett’s entrance, her gawky frame dripping wet because her character had swum the moat rather than waiting for the drawbridge to be lowered, signalled an outrageously forthright, outlandish performance making clear her determination to pass whatever fiendish test had been devised by the Queen to ensure that she was suitable to become the heir’s wife. Though inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Princess and the Pea, the musical tells what really happened.

Almost from the moment the show opened, it was regarded as a perfect vehicle for Dora Bryan when it came to London. Surprisingly, little-known Jane Connell was brought over from the USA to head a cast that included Thelma Ruby as the Queen, Max Wall as the Jester and Bill Kerr as the Wizard. The London opening in 1960 was disastrous. Ruby recently commented to me that an American director had arrived one week before the opening, had hated what he saw and altered everything, with the result that the first night was uncertain and under-rehearsed. It ran less than a month. This revival shows what a shame that was, for Rodgers’s score is delightful, full of tunes, to which lyricist Marshall Barer provided clever and dexterous words.

The leading role of Princess Winnifred – who tells the Prince that he may call her by her nickname, “Fred” – is not easy to cast. One critic called Burnett a mixture of Alice Pearce and Betty Hutton. Sarah Jane Parker received mixed reviews for a recent Broadway staging. At the Union Theatre’s Jenny O’Leary is cuddly and very likeable, but she lacks the touch of grotesquery and manic vitality that makes Winnifred lovable despite herself. Paddy Glynn as the devious Queen brings apt shades of Hermione Gingold, but could be a little more outrageous. I was disappointed that her hilarious solo, ‘Sensitivity’ (“I‘m just loaded with that”) originally sung in a trotting tempo, had been slowed to a waltz. There seems to have been a conscious effort on director Kirk Jameson’s part to prevent the production slipping into camp, but maybe it would not have been amiss. The show, though, remains a lark, and the Union company is strong on song and dance.

Ryan Limb, as the Minstrel, opens the show in fine style with a ballad, ‘Many moons ago’, recounting the tale as we know it. The romantic pair, Sir Harry and Lady Larken, are anxious to wed (Lady Larken is pregnant) but are prevented by the kingdom’s law stating that no-one may wed until the Queen’s heir has done so. Kimberly Blake and Stiofan O’Doherty make a dashing couple and bring near-operatic qualities to their two ardent duets. O’Doherty later joins the Jester (Daniel Bartlett) and the Minstrel in possibly the show’s most rapturous melody, ‘Normandy’, and Bartlett performs an engaging soft-shoe routine as the Jester remembers his father’s vaudeville act. Choreographer Racky Plews has fun also with ‘Spanish Panic’, a furious dance routine which the Queen hopes will tire the Princess, to whom she is also giving sleeping pills in case the mattresses don’t work.

The musical direction and piano accompaniment are in the expert hands of Alex Parker, but the balance sometimes had the piano battling the voices. ‘Happily ever after’, Winnifred’s complaint that other fairytale heroines did not have to work entirely alone (“Cinderella had outside help!”) is very funny (“Snow White had seven men helping her ”) but it was difficult to hear until the final lines, when ’O’Leary really belted. ‘Man to man talk’, in which the facts of life are conveyed in sign language by the mute King to his son, builds to a show-stopping finish and also suffered, although Denis Quilligan and Mark Anderson were splendid in the roles, as was David Pendlebury as the Wizard who serves the Queen.

With its mythical kingdom, wicked Queen, Wizard, Jester, a romantic couple and a comic one, Once Upon a Mattress has all the ingredients of a pantomime – for sophisticates. The Union is to be cheered for bringing us this beguiling rarity.

  • Once Upon a Mattress at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 5 January 2012
  • Tuesday to Sunday 7.30 p.m. (excluding 25 December to 1 January); matinees Sunday at 2.30
  • Tickets on 020 7261 9876

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