Once Upon a Mattress
Music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller
This 1950s musical with its operetta-like duets and tunes that seem to predate pop takes Hans Andersen’s story The Princess and the Pea and gives it a twist or three.
It premièred off-Broadway in 1959, transferred to the Great White Way and was on Shaftesbury Avenue the following year.
This tale of a fairytale prince needing a princess bride gets a delightfully straightforward production from director Kirk Jameson. It is played largely against simple drapes with the entrances of the prince’s controlling mother always preceded by the unrolling of a carpet.
Ryan Limb’s lively storyteller Minstrel dances on to the overture and launches into the Anderson version of the story. But that, though it may be the prettiest version, he says, just isn’t true. He knows, he was there, and he is going to tells us what really happened.
It is not just the shyly innocent Prince who isn’t able to marry until a girl can be found who passes his mother’s test for being a real princess. The knights of the court and their young ladies can’t marry either. Thirteen potential princesses fail their tests. “Blood will tell,” Paddy Glynn’s commanding Queen Aggravain asserts, “but yours didn’t tell us quite enough.” She announces marriage will have to wait for these girls’ younger sisters to grow up. One court couple can’t: Sir Harry and Lady Larkin are in desperate straits: she’s pregnant.
He goes off on a quest to find a real princess and bring back one who’s not exactly the delicate little thing you might expect. She even arrives at the palace first—having just swum the moat. The Queen and court may be put off but Prince Dauntless isn’t. Of course, this being a fairytale, there is a happy ending but outwitting the Queen takes quite an effort.
Princess Winnifred may sing “I’ve always been shy” but Jenny O’Leary is a big girl with a big voice and gives the princess from bogland a great personality. At first Mark Anderson’s Prince Dauntless could not be more of a contrast but he adds strength to the character as he responds to her but when his struck mute father, King Sextimus the Silent (Denis Quilligan), tries to mime some “Man to Man talk” to him, does he really get to understand how to make babies?
There’s an excellent pairing in Stiofán O’Doherty and Kimberly Blake’s Sir Harry and Lady Larkin and they deliver their romantic duets delightfully. There is David Pendlebury’s Wizard, who never does get the chance to perform his favourite trick, and Daniel Bartlett as a Jester who seems more of a messenger, though he does get to do a soft shoe shuffle to a song remembering his show business dad.
Danielle Morris as an unsuccessful Princess number 12 and additional courtiers and ladies from Natalie Bennyworth, Ashley Cooper, Matthew Daw, Gregory Hazel and Lucy Mills swell an ensemble that sometimes surrounds the audience and the whole company turns a neat foot in choreographer Racky Plews’ dances. They match the plots zaniness and add greatly to its vitality, peaking in a ballroom number with which the Queen plans to exhaust the Princess Winnifred: the Spanish Panic. With a Scott Joplin-sounding opening it seems to embrace everything from ballet to crazed Charleston, gopak-like crouching, pat-a-cake and a wild fandango.
This inconsequential but charmingly funny fairy tale for grown-ups might also make an alternative to panto for youngsters if they’ve already been ginned up on the birds and the bees.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton