Theatre Review: Once Upon A Mattress

Mock-mediaeval merriment in a fractured fairy-tale story results in a cheery show filled with pratfalls, patter, send-ups and satire.

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Presented by Marie Clark Musical Theatre
Reviewed 25th October, 2019

Mock-mediaeval merriment in a fractured fairy-tale story results in a cheery show filled with pratfalls, patter, send-ups and satire. The Marie Clark crew, directed by Lauren Scarfe, uses all the elements of this rollicking musical comedy to entertaining effect.

Helen Wheadon is to be congratulated for her stylised castle-wall set design. It’s minimal, cleverly modular and takes little floorspace on the Goodie stage while offering five exit points (although some are a bit undersized for traffic requirements). The design sits well within the context of the friendly old Goodwood Institute theatre.

A young Carol Burnett played Princess Winnifred in the original Broadway cast of 1959: this show is essentially a vehicle for an outstanding female comic lead. Mercifully, Emily-Jo Davidson plays the lead role with the flamboyance, uninhibited gusto and delicacy of focus that this comedic role demands. Davidson’s Princess Winnifred holds the whole show together. She is vocally secure, musicianly in her singing, fearlessly inventive in her acting, and a generous colleague to all others on-stage with her. She sings the well-known Shy with both physical and vocal command, manages the triplet-ridden Happily Ever After with panache, and goes for comic broke in The Swamps Of Home. Her voice has a solid foundation in both legit and belt qualities. The demanding role of Lady Larken, pivoting between quiet drama and raucous comedy, belongs to Brooke Washusen, who sings, acts and moves beautifully all night. Her legit singing quality is reminiscent of a young Barbara Cook. These two young women together provide the spine of the show’s strength singing Mary Rodgers’ quirky and complex score. (Mary put in more accidentals than her dad Richard ever did.)

Transforming from gormless to gorgeous, William Peake portrays Prince Dauntless. He carefully calibrates his character change throughout the show, while giving full comedic value at every turn.  His man-to-man (solo) chat with his father showcases his very pleasant and warm singing voice. Sir Harry, a gung-ho knight in the Miles Gloriosus tradition, is played by Chris Bierton. It would have been fun to see Bierton use his height as a distinct advantage as this brash chap. His duets with Washusen (as Lady Larken) serve to point out his vocal limitations. Likewise, the genial Aled Proeve, whose Minstrel character serves as storyteller linking the whole show together.  Despite an easy charm of manner, his spoken and sung voice lacks incisive clarity, and his songs were in keys which did not sit well within his vocal range. Proeve was at his vocal best in his trio with the Jester (Claire Birbeck) and King Sextimus (John Lanigan-O’Keeffe). Very Soft Shoes, a character solo number filled with charm, style and affectionate recollection, is the Jester’s one showpiece. Lively Claire Birbeck’s Jester pops on and off stage all night, brightening scenes as the palace mediator and negotiator; however, her song-and-dance spot in Very Soft Shoes shows little awareness of the nature of this iconic song-and-dance style.

A loud, overbearing queen (Queen Aggravain) and her magically mute husband (King Sextimus) are the focus of many comedic devices. John Lanigan-O’Keeffe as the King, speaks hardly a word, relying on gestural language interpreted by his Jester for communication. His consort, a statuesque, formidable Lucy Trewin, as Queen Aggravain, has enough lines to learn for both of them put together. She plays the comic domineering mother to the hilt, managing very rapid text with commendable clarity. Her style is, curiously, somewhat at odds with everyone else in the production. Her party-piece, Sensitivity works beautifully, largely because it is essentially a solo, with her poor Wizard (Devinder Singh Khalsa) rarely able to get a word in edgewise. In other scenes, Dev certainly holds his mystical own.  

Vanessa Redmond, choreographer of this show, displays her genius for fitting movement to the space, the performer and the theatrical demands of the scene. Redmond’s choreography is designed to put skilled dancers on show and hesitant beginner-dancers at their ease. The happy result of this is that in all the stage movement, particularly the large-group work, everyone looks confident and engaged.

Music is in the charge of Musical Director Katie Packer, whose 13-piece orchestra plays supportively and well. Choral work varies in precision, with An Opening For A Princess performed neatly and well by the ensemble, but the Opening to Act 2, which demands utter precision of clapping, speaking, foot-stamping and movement, is less tidy.  Packer’s tempi are both bright and appropriate, and the sound balance works remarkably well. Thanks to audio design by INTLX Productions, the band never obtrudes above the sung and spoken word.

There is an immense amount of work involved in costuming this silly mediaeval romp, for which Costume Coordinator Narelle Lee deserves high praise. Speaking of praise, Director Scarfe and Marie Clark Musical Theatre certainly deserve applause for staging this much-loved show from the music theatre canon with affection, energy and respect.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  The Goodwood Institute, Goodwood

Season: 26th October – 2nd November, 2019

Duration: 2.5 hrs

Tickets: $33 – $38

Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/BDMDT

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