BWW Review: ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, Upstairs At The Gatehouse
Mary Rodgers' (yes, daughter of that Richard Rodgers) 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress makes an appearance in Highgate in a revival that, unfortunately, looks old and stuffy despite all the talent on stage.
Written as an original spin on Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Princess and the Pea, the comedy sees a kingdom bound by a weird marriage law: unless Prince Dauntless (Theo Toksvig-Stewart) is married, all other couples will have to wait to unite. The years pass and Queen Aggravain (Julia Faulkner) keeps turning down Dauntless's suitors, making it impossible for Sir Harry (Scott Armstrong) and Lady Larken (Rachael Louise Miller) to be together.
When Harry finds out Larken is pregnant, he sets off to find a princess worthy of his future king, bringing back a rather unorthodox young woman: Princess Winnifred. Trouble ensues, Winnifred passes all the tests, the Queen is dismayed, and everyone lives happily ever after. A conventional tale for a conventional musical era. Director Mark Giesser maintains a dusty vibe throughout, staging the material exactly how one imagines it must have looked like in the late 60s.
Even with a gifted company of pitch-perfect performers with big personalities (though, sadly in line with Giesser's unprogressive staging, all-white), the result terribly lacks kick and pace, dragging its feet from the very start. The piece attempts to pick back up right before the act break with an ensemble number and kind of grows on its audience by its end (did our interval drinks have a hand in that? We'll never know...).
The uninventive direction hosts a bunch of missed opportunities that would make sense in this day and age. An example of this is comes in the form of King Sextimus (Steve Watts), who's rendered mute by a curse. Giesser stages a game of charades every time he needs to speak when he could have done the same with some good ol' BSL in the mix, for instance.
The actors are fairly efficient at exploiting Marshall Barer's lyrics and book (the latter co-written with Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller) to deliver commendable comedic timing, but the absence of textual challenge coming from the top limits what they do with their characters. The ultimate outcome of this is a hyper-faithful, dated and stodgy show.
All in all, Once Upon a Mattress is what it is - nothing special when you look at it from afar and it certainly doesn't bring anything new to the stage. The piece shows its age, and Giesser unfortunately doesn't do anything to aid the reception of a 2020 audience.
Image courtesy of Andreas Lambis