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Once Upon A Mattress - Art In Motion

Updated: May 27, 2023

Reviewed by Paul Treasure

 

As a reviewer, one of the greatest challenges you can face is to be sent to a production of one of your favourite shows. Your expectations are going to be higher and there is the worry that you will judge more harshly than normal. In the case of Art in Motion’s latest offering, Once Upon a Mattress, this reviewer need not have worried. Under the skilled hand of Rachel Vonk, this team have given us a funny and enchanting rendition of this gem of a musical.


Don Russell Performing Arts Centre was not designed to hold musicals. There is no pit to house an orchestra, which leaves the problem of where to put the musicians. This production made the bold choice to forego having a proper set and placed the musicians at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, with a simple stone parapet separating them from the playing area in front of them. This gamble paid off well as it gave us a chance to see them in action and lent itself to the actors occasionally interacting with the musicians as though they were also part of the action onstage. The orchestra were well-drilled and well-balanced, under the confident direction of Tara Oorjitham.


The lack of a set and the need to keep the upstage area lit must have been a nightmare for Chloe Palliser but she gave us a lighting design that nicely conveyed the changes of scene and mood throughout the show. The costumes, as co-ordinated by Oniesha Temby, appear to have been mostly sourced from the wardrobes of several Perth theatres. Oniesha has managed to pick and choose brilliantly from what was available and matched them well to the requirements of each character. The skill to be able to look at a row of pre-existing costumes and pick the right outfit for the right character is a sorely underrated one, and Oniesha has done this impeccably. On a side note, it should be highlighted as a strength of the wardrobe departments in Perth’s Community Theatre scene as some of the costumes on stage are older than most of the performers, and they still hold up and look as good and fresh as they did when they were first made 30-40 years ago.


The history of how and why this show was written is fascinating for a Musical Theatre nerd and could fill a book. To sum it up, the show was originally written around a specific group of performers to highlight their skills and to downplay their weaknesses. So it takes a lot of skill for

other actors to pull these roles off effectively. The first character we meet is the Minstrel, played by Kate O’Sullivan. The choice to cast Kate in this role was brilliant, her height and the strength of her stage presence can sometimes come across with a “Panto Principal Boy” energy, which in this case lends itself beautifully to this role, and makes the minstrel stronger than he is often played.

Queen Aggravain is written for a strong actress with great timing and the ability to convincingly convey pages of text in a short time. Lucy Eyre handles this role with apparent effortlessness and imperiousness that could shoot anyone down. This is a fearsome portrayal and her ability to bring out the comedy and dynamism in what can easily become a one-note character was a joy to watch.


The mostly mute role of King Sextimus was written for a physical comedian, and few actors in Perth can pull off physical comedy quite like Peter “Pear” Carr. His movements and expressions have the range and precision of a mime, and the impeccable comic timing of a clown, combined with an actor's sense of realising a fully rounded character. It is perhaps ironic that for such a good singer, one of his best performances to date should be in a mostly silent role.


Felix Malcolm plays Sir Harry as a Galahad or Lancelot personified, with arrogance and righteousness. Coupled with the beautiful Arianne Westcott-King as Lady Larkin, whose songs are executed with perfection and grace, the pair make the most attractive romantic pairing possible in a musical in Perth at the moment, and they both have the skill and talent to sell their characters and swiftly become audience favourites.


It is, perhaps, unfair to the rest of the cast to have to try and compete with such a ridiculously talented quintet of characters. Jason Nettle, as the Jester, managed to hold his own in his numbers with the King, Minstrel, and Lady Larkin, no mean feat. His singing was top notch and his dancing beautiful, although more could have been made of his talents in his solo, which could have been his moment to shine. Oleksandr Isaiev was delightful in his role as the Wizard. Megan West is to be commended for her three cameo roles, all of them well-differentiated.

Paige Alexander was given the unenviable task of playing Princess Winnifred, a role originally written specifically for Carol Burnett. She sang the role with beauty and a fantastic belt, and with a great understanding of the comedic potential. The requirements of this role make it tough for any performer, as it needs to be played BIG. Prince Dauntless is also a tricky role, in that it needs to be played as soft and soppy as possible, but at the same time showing us the underlying potential for strength that comes at the end of the show. Micheal Carroll sang the role fantastically and played off his fellow actors well, but his character felt a little undercooked, and more work could have been done to give us a defined, rather than just a general, character.


The highlight of this show is normally the Act One closer “I’m In Love With A Girl Named Fred”. In this production, it felt a little underwhelming, as the humour of Winnifred attempting each task in the song while getting more and more drunk, and Dauntless’s glee in her successes, seemed to get lost. However, the number that is probably the trickiest in the entire show “Quiet” - a number that is mostly performed a capella, with complicated stamping and clapping from the ensemble - was the best I have ever seen it performed.


Congratulations to Rachel Vonk and Art in Motion Theatre Company for such a well done and thoroughly enjoyable production of one of my favourite musicals. If you don’t know this shining jewel of a show, this is the perfect production to introduce yourself to its magic and hilarity.

Arianne Wescott-King (Lady Larken) and Felix Malcolm (Sir Harry)

Reviewer Note: Paul directed Kate O'Sullivan in November 2022. Kate is also a reviewer for Theatre Reviews Perth. Tickets for this review were provided by the theatre company.

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