“Flip your skirt, open, close…”
The Union Theatre’s festive show is this little US curiosity from 1959, Once Upon A Mattress. It’s a playful riff on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Princess and the Pea and its endearing silliness and the high campery of Kirk Jameson’s production makes it a whole bundle of festive fun. Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer’s book purports to tell an alternative version of events which sees Queen Aggravain come up with ever more difficult tasks for princesses to pass in order to win the hand of her beloved son Prince Dauntless. But when the unreconstructed Princess Winifred – a princess from the swamps – wins the heart of mummy’s boy Dauntless, the queen has to devise the hardest test possible.
Jamieson makes great use of his ensemble as courtiers constantly watching the action and so always on hand to sing and dance their way attractively through a range of random numbers. Mary Rodgers’ score really isn’t too memorable but Racky Plews’ choreography is so eye-poppingly vibrant that it almost doesn’t matter. The group scenes thus spark happily into life, none more so than in the dizzying routine of Spanish Panic which is witty as well as impressive.
The show also has more than its fair share of random moments that don’t always fit so well into the flow of the narrative – an extended tap dance break feels like an ill-advised attempt to make us care for a minor character who is then quickly forgotten (though Daniel Bartlett is very good), and the narrating role of the Minstrel didn’t work for me either (though again well performed, by Ryan Limb in this case).
But there’s lots of fun in the cod-operatic pairing of Kimberley Blake and Stiofan O’Doherty’s melodramatic lovers; Paddy Glynn and Denis Quilligan match up well as the long-suffering monarchs; and Mark Anderson and Jenny O’Leary are utterly charming as the leads to build up some genuine chemistry.