Marie Clark Musical Theatre
Goodwood Institute Theatre
Until 02 Nov 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

‘Once Upon a Mattress’ feels very much like a show from another time, which makes sense considering the story is based on a fairytale (The Princess and the Pea), and it first premiered in 1959. This is not intended as a criticism, as it often can be when talking about art from the past. Rather, the production has an undeniable endearing charm, and though it clearly lacks a modern sensibility, it never feels aggressively dated. There are moments that show its age, but fairytales are timeless for a reason, and ‘Once Upon a Mattress’, and Marie Clark’s production of it, lean into the bedtime story elements in a way that is comforting and very cute. The plot does manage to somehow appear both too thin and overstuffed, but the earnestness of the cast, and a powerhouse performance from Emily-Jo Davidson in the central role, give the show life.

As is often the case with adaptations of simple tales as this, additional characters and subplots have been added. The basic premise is the same—a young prince is looking for a wife, and only someone who qualifies as a real princess will do. When an unconventional candidate appears, her royal blood is put to the test when a single pea is placed under her twenty mattresses, causing her to have a sleepless night. This, of course, proves her worth. In ‘Once Upon A Mattress’, this simple plot is stretched and twisted to reach its two and a half hour running time, to mixed results.

The prince’s mother, Queen Aggravain, is now a manipulative schemer determined to thwart her son’s efforts to find a bride; King Sextimus is under a curse that does not allow him to speak; and there is a rule whereby no one in the kingdom can marry until the prince does. While these additions are understandable to add more complexity to the show, they largely fail to deliver on serving a true narrative purpose. The scenes with the supporting characters, intended for comic relief or to add dramatic tension, tend to make the show drag and feel bloated. Several threads are introduced and not picked up again, or conflicts arise only to be solved almost immediately. (A small subplot involving the King chasing one of the maids around the castle may also give you pause.)

There’s never a real sense of urgency to any of it, and the stakes don’t feel significant. The humour is fairly broad, and while it’s fun, it is rarely surprising. The musical numbers, performed beautifully by the orchestra under Katie Packer’s direction, are generally quite dull and never really move the story forward. (An extended dance sequence by the court jester about her father’s entertainment career is one of the more perplexing moments.)

The characters are little more than archetypes, though that’s in keeping with the style and story of the show. The cast throw themselves into their roles with enthusiasm, doing a fine job of embracing the silliness of it all. None of them have the comedy chops necessary to make all of the jokes land, and sometimes the energy feels a little lacking. There were a few moments on opening night that seemed to indicate some lost lines—either that, or the script is more muddled than I thought.

In the principal roles, Lucy Trewin as Queen Aggravain is having fun as the villain of the piece, but could use more variation in what she is doing, and some of her lines are completely lost in the speed with which she spoke them. Brooke Washusen and Chris Bierton as young lovers Lady Larkin and Sir Harry are likeable, though could go even bigger with some of their character work. The ensemble get some nice little character moments, but as a whole are not particularly strong, especially when it comes to the dancing, which means the choreography by Vanessa Redmond is not as lively or as fun as it could have been. Lauren Scarfe’s direction keeps a consistent tone across the board, and uses the space well. At times the stage business appeared a little too choregraphed in a way that felt stilted. It does all hang together fairly well, even when the script moves between boring and baffling.

The key to the entire story, of course, is Princess Winnifred, the prince’s potential bride: the swamp princess who is uncouth, uneducated, and unaccustomed to traditional palace life. As soon as she enters, Emily-Jo Davidson breathes fresh and delightful life to both the character and the show as a whole. She does not waste a moment onstage, and instantly gets the audience on her side while making them laugh uproariously in the process. She not only nails every joke that is written for her, but finds humorous gems all on her own. (I almost lost my mind when she shushed a bouquet of flowers.) Her physicality in particular is tremendous, and everything she does feels utterly spontaneous and natural; she is just a joy to watch. Her efforts in ‘Song of Love’, the Act I closer, are a particular highlight. Her chemistry with William Peake as Prince Dauntless is incredibly fun, and while Peake’s inexperience in a leading role shows, he is very charming in the part and his voice is lovely. The scenes that celebrate the budding relationship between these two oddballs are genuinely delightful, which makes the other stuff feel all the more like wasted time.

‘Once Upon A Mattress’ isn’t breaking new ground of offers any kind of innovative take on ‘The Princess and the Pea’, but it also doesn’t really need to. Its tone is far from contemporary, the songs are fairly dull and it all goes on a bit too long, but there’s enough here to be entertaining in a way that’s comforting. Coupled with Davidson as the MVP, it all makes for a fine night at the theatre.