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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Once Upon A Mattress
YouTube     Autumn 2020

A Broadway musical hit of 1959, Once Upon A Mattress was no My Fair Lady, but a delightful, tuneful and thoroughly entertaining star vehicle, a prime example of how very good even B-list musicals could be in that Golden Age.

This 1964 television version, in glorious black-and-white, captures only some of the show's charm, but enough to make it worth a little over an hour (90 minutes of American TV, minus the ads) of your time.

The show music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller is a take-off on the fairy tale of the princess and the pea, the central joke being that Winifred The Woebegone is no fragile Disney princess, but a big, galumphing tomboy who is exactly what the stuffy kingdom and mousy prince need.

It was created as a vehicle for the young Carol Burnett, soon to become a major television star as the kind of comic actress who used her lack of conventional prettiness as a comic tool by which I mean to say she mugged a lot.

Although this 1964 TV version is heavily cut, Burnett's broad comic performance survives, as do those of the members of the original cast Joseph Bova as the milquetoast prince, Jane White as the evil queen, and especially rubber-faced Jack Gilford as the mute but very expressive king. Considerably less successful are Shani Wallis and Bill Hayes as the secondary romantic couple, largely because all their best songs have been dropped.

Carol Burnett may not be to all tastes she could never be accused of subtle underplaying but the role was written to showcase her, and if she is going to win you over she will do it within the first minutes as she announces in braying song 'I've always been SHYYYYYY.'

One of my favourites of Winifred's songs, Happily Ever After, has been cut, but Burnett hilariously dances, mimes and mugs a show-stopping accompaniment to Bova's A Girl Named Fred.

The biggest casualties of this TV condensation are the songs. Those who know the score will miss the lovely ballads In A Little While and Yesterday I Loved You, while some of Barer's cleverest (and pre-Sondheimish) lyrics have been lost, depriving this version of such gems as '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.'

(The idea that some of the ladies-in-waiting might not have waited was deemed too shocking for American TV audiences, and a secret marriage for the secondary couple was written in.)

Perhaps only those who have seen the full show it has been revived onstage and, indeed, on television several times will miss what's missing here. See it for Carol Burnett, for the effortlessly scene-stealing Jack Gilford, and for the general high spirits and innocent fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Once Upon A Mattress (1964) - YouTube 2020