Sunday, 2 December 2012

Theatre review: Once Upon a Mattress

Some likeable, if a bit undercooked, family entertainment at the Union, where Once Upon a Mattress promises to tell the untold story behind the fairytale of the princess and the pea. The inaccurately-named Prince Dauntless (the Tovey-eared Mark Anderson) must marry a true princess, as defined by his mother (Paddy Glynn.) The Queen's definition is incredibly strict and subject to frequent change because, of course, she wants to keep her son to herself, and devises the various tests with her court wizard (David Pendlebury) specifically so that each princess is doomed to fail. And it's not just her gormless son who's affected - the law of the land says nobody else in the kingdom can get married until the prince does, which is particularly tricky for Sir Harry (Stiofán O'Doherty) and lady-in-waiting Larkin (Kimberley Blake) who've just found out their relationship is going to become quite public in about nine months' time. So Sir Harry determines to find the prince a wife, and discovers Winnifred (Jenny O'Leary,) the no-nonsense princess of a swamp.

The songs by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer are unlikely to get stuck in anyone's head too easily (which is hopefully a more polite way of saying it than one lady in the audience barking "IT'S NOT VERY TUNEFUL, IS IT?" as soon as the house lights came up for the interval.) And the book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller feels rather thrown together - an ensemble show is good, but they don't seem to know what to do with a lot of the characters. The narrating Minstrel (Ryan Limb) comes and goes, while the Jester (cute Daniel Bartlett) gets a late song and dance attempting to give him some background, when the script hasn't even thought to give him any actual jesting to do yet.

The story also seems undecided about the second romantic couple, alternating between wanting us to sympathise with Harry and Larkin, and see them as rather shallow fools. But the show's lacklustre energy picks up when O'Leary arrives as the loud, moat-swimming, "shy" princess who captivates Dauntless as much as she horrifies his mother. She's a lot of fun, and bolsters everyone else's performance as well - there's a funny scene where the prince's mute father (Denis Quilligan) tries to teach his son about the birds and the bees through charades alone, and is the only real instance of the show trying to sneak in a gag over the kids' heads. Overall I found Kirk Jameson's production to be a little underpowered, when jumping into the silliness a bit more could have really raised it above the material's shortcomings. From the energy levels and some too-quiet singing I got the impression the cast were holding back a bit as it was a matinee - which almost everyone does, but it shouldn't really be apparent to an audience member who doesn't have another performance to compare it to.

Still, it's a fun enough little show that might want to look into some young people's discounts as kids are probably the best audience for the production (just wrap them up warm, it's the Union after all.) Jameson's production comes close to providing a bit of a cheeky edge for older audiences but doesn't quite deliver.

Once Upon a Mattress by Mary Rodgers, Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller is booking until the 5th of January at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval

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