Review: Once Upon a Mattress, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Fringe venues, such as Upstairs at the Gatehouse, are so wonderful in their intimacy and ruggedness, able to focus more on ‘passion’ plays and experimentation. Some of the funniest productions I have seen have been at little venues like this, most likely because there is more opportunity for the actors and director to take risks with their work. Which is why it is so sad to see such a modest audience on a Saturday evening performance here, but perhaps that is more a sign of the uncertain climate we currently find ourselves in, rather than a significant marker of peoples attitudes to fringe theatre.

Irrespective of its minimal audience, the curtain raised (not literally in this case) on Once Upon a Mattress; a musical comedy by Mary Rodgers, daughter of the legendary composer Richard Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, this musical dances closely around the beloved tale of a Prince searching for his perfect match, whilst his mother does everything she can to prove each suitress is not worthy. When, finally, a strong female lead comes along, it seems that the Queen is more determined than ever to stop this match from happening, much to the dismay of the besotted Prince. Adding some comic relief along the way is an accidental pregnancy, a jester and a wizard, and a king who speaks through charades.

Whilst the show kicks off to a great start with a wonderful opening number from Matthew James Willis as the Minstrel, I feel that the following scenes and numbers drag a little and lack the energy and pace that I crave from a musical. Although the comic timing is excellent and the physical humour works well, it does push the show more toward pantomime in the first act, with performances that lean a bit too much into the comedy and lose some of the truth of the scene. Things change dramatically by the time we get to the dance number Spanish Panic and into Song of Love making the ending of the first act a real teaser of what’s to come.

Act two kicks off with a bang and maintains a fantastic pace throughout, with some really spectacular moments that have the whole audience belly laughing. Whilst the story does seem a little trite, you can’t help but cheer the heroes on for their endearing desire for a happy ending. Poor dears.

The choreography by Chris Whittaker is absolutely divine and by far the best element of this production. In what is a fairly small performance space he takes full advantage of what is available, creating gorgeous tableaux across the show and introducing some interesting motifs which add familiarity throughout.

The costume really brought the piece together thematically, though not a lot can be said about the set. It is minimal, presumably to keep the budget small and avoid cluttering the space, and whilst I feel that you can create some stunning productions on the simplest of provisions, I feel that their is a lack of respect for the performance space, leading to unnecessary backpacks and equipment (from either the musicians or the cast) left on the stage. 

An ensemble piece for sure, this show has some great performances from a cast of very talented singers. Most notably Beth Burrows as Winnifred (a role previously headed by actresses such as Carol Burnett and Sarah Jessica Parker), Theo Toksvig-Stewart gave a very charming performance as the Prince, Steve Watts’ brilliantly funny King Sextimus, and of course as aforementioned Willis as the Minstrel.

Unlike sleeping on twenty mattresses stuffed with bric-a-brac, this musical is a delight to sit through. Whilst it is not entirely polished, there are some really wonderful elements and as a musical the composition is a joy to listen to.

Further performances of Once Upon A Mattress have been cancelled. For more information visit the Upstairs at the Gatehouse website.