Tuesday, 20 August 2019

REVIEW: Towards Zero at The Mill at Sonning

This is a very British experience. The Mill is a small intimate venue, a theatre since 1982 offering dinner theatre (I enjoyed slow braised beef in red wine pie and cheese and biscuits) and on this occasion a play based on a 1944 book by Agatha Christie set in Cornwall and directed by the booming legend, Brian Blessed. They offer consistently good productions and the recent renovations have put a bit more style back into the bars, dining areas and toilets.

The small thrust stage places the audience on three sides of the acting space but they always create good quality sets, this one designed by Dinah England is the elegant drawing room at Gull's Point the home of the elderly frail Lady Tressilian (played by Brian Blessed's wife Hildegard Neil). The set is covered with clock motifs in the wallpaper, the door arch, the wooden floor and an old grandfather clock is set to midnight at the start of the show. The audience is in no doubt that time plays a critical role in the plot and we are approaching the Zero hour.

The Christie book was turned into a play in 1956 by Gerald Verner. In the first half (Act 1 scene 1 and 2 and Act 2 scene 1) the characters have too spend too long in necessary exposition explaining past relationships and the speech is stilted and unrealistic. The characters are all one dimensional and don't spend long on stage at each appearance but Christie is spinning her web and drawing us into the guessing game of whodunnit. The tension of the situation is created through ominous statements like "something queer is going on", "something is going to happen" and "something is wrong, don't you feel it"! But then in the second half the action explodes into some excellent twists and turns as the detectives accuse each character in turn of being the culprit of the murder.

Blessed has made the company a bit of a family affair, as well as his wife, her ladyship's assistant Mary is played by their daughter Rosalind and Noel White (solicitor Treves), Patrick Myles (Thomas Royde returning to Gull's Point after 7 years away) and George Telfer (the lead detective Battle) all worked with him last year in the Unexpected Guest at the Mill. In addition Chris Pybus (Battle's nephew Leach), Kate Tydman (the enigmatic Audrey) and Duncan Wilkins (Ted Latimer with some amazing eyebrow action) all worked with Rosalind Blessed at the Soho theatre earlier this year . Also returning to the venue is Bethan Nash as Kay Strange (previously starred at Mill in the wonderful My Fair Lady). The only new actor to the team was Rob Heanley as Neville Strange (now married to Kay having divorced from Audrey) who seems content to have both wives with him at the House! Brian Blessed glorious distinctive voice fills the theatre via a couple of scene setting radio broadcasts.

The action takes place in September 1956 over a period of five days and the detectives do most of the best work in the drawing room with a succession of evidence being produced before the audience and the suspects, so that if you listen and look carefully you can see that that it points only one way. But in the best tradition of Agatha Christie's stories and British mysteries there are so many red herrings and alternative explanations that it does not become blindingly obvious until the Zero Hour! 

This is a play that does what you expect: baffles, entertains and amuses in equal measure. The ensemble cast work hard to put meaning into the old script and as the pace accelerates ,the twists and turns come thick and fast, so by the midnight hour it finally delivers on the promise that you will leave the theatre well satisfied. 

The play runs to 28th September. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat : Row F | Price of Ticket: £58, including dinner
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