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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Once Upon A Mattress
Union Theatre Winter 2012-2013

Of the half-dozen or so off-West End revivals of Broadway musicals in the past month, this is the only one where the presentation isn't better than the material, the only one that (not just for budget reasons) feels like just a fringe show. The reasons to see it lie entirely in the charms of the musical itself, not in the ill-conceived, poorly directed lacklustre production. 

I won't criticise the hard-working performers. Some are miscast, some are not up to the job, and all have been mis-directed and mis-choreographed so that their characters are undeveloped, their movements are awkward and almost nothing in the show works as it should.

I'd rather point out the virtues of the musical itself, some hints of which do peek through the production, perhaps just enough to make it worth a visit. 

The 1959 hit, with book by Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller, music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Barer, was not a major work, but just the kind of solid, totally entertaining B-list show that Broadway's golden age routinely produced.

It is a comic take on The Princess And The Pea, the central joke being that the heroine is no fairy tale princess but a gawky, brassy tomboy who is exactly what this kingdom needs to shake it up. (The original was a vehicle for the young Carol Burnett.) 

So most of the comic scenes and about half the score – songs like Shy, Happily Ever After and I'm In Love With A Girl Named Fred – are built on the central incongruity, while there are also several quite lovely melodies – In A Little While, Yesterday, Normandy, Very Soft Shoes – and lyrics that display an unpretentious and infectious delight in wordplay - 'Alack, a lass is what we lack/We lack a lass, alas alack' and 'My time is at a premium/For soon the world will see me a/Maternal bride-to-be.'

In addition to the star role, just begging for someone with real comic flair to put her stamp on it, the stage is full of enjoyable characters – the milquetoast prince, his gorgon mother, the browbeaten and almost entirely miming king, the secondary romantic couple and others – each handing properly cast and directed performers the opportunity to shine.

Of course individual numbers and even whole shows are open to reinterpretation, but one would hope that a director would notice that the whole point of Sensitivity is that it be sung with hard-edged cynicism, that the whole joke of Fred is that the girl is getting drunk during it, that playing the romantic second lead as a buffoon hurts the love songs, that it would help to cast a skilled mime in a mime role, and that Very Soft Shoes is not a tap dance.

Keep your eye and ear on the material and try to imagine it being staged and performed by people more able to do it full justice, and you will find as much as this revival has to offer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Once Upon A Mattress - Union Theatre 2012   

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