"Charming" is so hard to pull off. Go too far one way, and you get saccharine sweet sentimentality; go too far the other, and you're hanging on for dramatic tension that never arrives - because everyone is too nice really. But Once Upon A Mattress (at the Union Theatre until 5 January) is the most charming musical I've seen since Salad Days last year.
Until Prince Dauntless marries, none other in the kingdom may marry - and Queen Aggravain, abetted by her Wizard, is happy to keep things that way, setting impossible tests by which suitors must prove their "royalty". Dauntless, distinctly daunted by his overpowering mother, needs help and gets it from Sir Harry, whose fiancee, Lady Larkin, has a need for wedlock that is growing, day by day. Harry sets off to faraway lands and returns with Princess Winnifred - who is more Fergie than Diana, but has a heart of gold and spirit to match. Can she pass the royalty test? Twenty mattresses and one pea later, we find out.
With panto season showcasing some less than pleasing voices (amplified too), it's a delight to hear such wonderful singing, from the moment the cast harmonise en masse from behind a screen at the rear of the space, through to simply splendid individual songs. Kimberley Blake and Jenny O'Leary (electrifying as Princess Winnifred) are the standouts amongst the singers, but old hand Paddy Glynn (Queen Aggravain) isn't far behind. Stiofan O'Doherty and Mark Anderson stay just the right side of camp in their Alpha-Male / Omega-Male Prince and Knight double act - and Denis Quilligan damn near steals the show as the dumbstruck King telling his son about the birds and the bees through mime.
With some of the most ambitious choreography (from Racky Plews) that I've ever seen in so small a space, there are times when Kirk Jameson's production has the feel of a West End show. But it doesn't quite - and that's just right for a lovely little fairytale that uses a tremendous amount of skill, technique and energy to create two magical hours away from all the stuff that infests real life. Perfect seasonal entertainment.
Photo Kay Young