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Monday, 27 March 2023

REVIEW: Hay Fever at the Mill at Sonning

It’s nearly 100 years since Noel Coward’s farcical comedy about the eccentric Bliss Family was first staged in the West End and it seems appropriate to mount a new production at the lovely Mill at Sonning in Berkshire just 12 miles from Cookham where the play is set. Yet the play is something of a curiosity of the period filled with theatrical games played by the self-centred egotistical family. Its artificiality may have amused us 100 years ago but now it all seems a little tiresome and we never care for any of the characters or are particularly amused by their affected behaviour. It does not have the exquisite wit and banter of his 1930 play Private Lives, the spectacle of the 1931 extravaganza Cavalcade, the beauty and romance of his 1936 play Still Life (so delightfully revived at the Mill at Sonning recently), the comical self-parody of the 1942 Present Laughter or even the wonderful characters of the 1941 Blithe Spirit. 

Perhaps students of Coward’s extensive legacy of plays and music will see in this earlier play elements that he would later develop in his work. It is easy to see why Critics often gave mixed reviews when his new plays opened but also to recognise the enduring impact he had on Theatre. Therefore, if you have not seen the play before it is worth a trip down to Berkshire to catch it and reflect on why the central character Judith has been played over the years by such as Edith Evans, Celia Johnson, Penelope Keith, Maria Aitken, Geraldine McEwan, Judi Dench, Stephanie Beacham, Lindsay Duncan, Googie Withers, Dora Bryan, Celia Imrie, Nichola McAuliffe and Felicity Kendal. This is a phenomenal roll call and suggests it’s a part that the best female actresses of the day love to play.

Monday, 30 January 2023

REVIEW: We'll Always Have Paris at the Mill at Sonning

The Mill at Sonning’s wonderful dinner theatre in Berkshire programmes for an audience it knows well with an attractive mix of comedy, thrillers, and musicals. The 2023 season will feature unusually two major musicals (instead of a thriller) the wonderful Gypsy (May to July) and the marvellous Cole Porter’s High Society (November to January 2024) as well as the classic 1920’s comedy Hay Fever (March to May), a revival of the hilarious Ayckbourn’s How the other half lives (August to September) and a reworking of a Ray Cooney farce It’s her turn now (September to November). The season starts with a less well-known title, We’ll always have Paris, about three old school friends who meet up for a weekend in a rented rooftop apartment in Paris and its exploration of how women in their mid-sixties look at life and reflect on their past resonates perfectly with many in the Mill’s regular diners. 

Sally Hughes who runs the venue has directed this new version, updating the script for references to Love island, Trump and Brexit since it was last staged at the venue in 2010 to give it a more topical feel. Jill Hyem’s script is already packed with witty lines that give laugh-out-loud moments of recognition like giving up statins because “you can’t live in Paris and worry about cholesterol” or referring to her past life as “a hitchhikers guide to the fallacy”. It plays clever amusing games with the French and English languages as the visitors learn to get on with the French and try to improve their language skills. Some of it sounds like a recall of a Monty Python sketch which perfectly resonates with the Mill’s clientele.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

REVIEW: Barefoot in the Park at the Mill at Sonning

Neil Simon’s 1963 comedy Barefoot in the Park was made famous as a film with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as the newlywed couple Paul and Corrie and has been acclaimed as one of the funniest comedies ever. It relies on the two central performances to ring the most laughs from the simple plot that explores their relationship in the second week of their marriage. The Mill at Sonning’s latest production which runs until 20th August and is directed by Robin Herford is fortunate to have two such actors.

Hannah Pauley, raised in the United States, easily fits into her role as the enthusiastically in love Corrie. From her first appearance bouncing around the empty compact sixth-floor apartment in excitement, awaiting the arrival of her furniture and her new husband from work, she convinces us that she is head of heals in love, full of optimism and an independently free spirit with great facial reactions and a winning smile. As the play progresses, we feel the mood change with growing self-doubt and we will her to find the joy in life again that made her want to walk Barefoot in the Park during a New York winter.

Monday, 9 May 2022

REVIEW: Busman's Honeymoon at the Mill at Sonning Theatre

Dorothy L Sayers British literary creation of the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey should perhaps be as familiar to British TV and Theatre audiences as Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but David Suchet’s masterful TV portrayal and countless film adaptions have completely eclipsed him. It is a very long time since the 1970s and Ian Carmichael’s radio and TV portrayal which I have vague memories of, so it is perhaps overdue to see a restaging of this story first staged in 1936 and made into a film in 1940! Unlike Peter James’s rather macabre plays about Detective Roy Grace, this is a detective mystery where the emphasis is on romance and the feelings of the detective rather than the crime itself, although as it turns out it is a rather quirky and unusual murder method although the clues are well signposted throughout the show.

Lord Peter Wimsey is the archetypal British gentleman of the period educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford and then suffering PTSD during the First World War where he met Sergeant Bunter who becomes his valet (for twenty years) before meeting Harriet Vane who he marries in 1935. In this play, we meet all three as they arrive at Talboys in Hertfordshire for their honeymoon only to discover the body of the former owner, Noakes, in the cellar. In the course of his detective work his relationships with both are fully explored and his intelligence and literary knowledge are often displayed. James Sheldon captures the quietly superior character while revealing some of his inner turmoil and regrets as well as his love for Harriet. Vane is played by Kate Tydman as a delightful loyal wife with an understanding of crime and intellect to match him and their choreographed moves elegantly portray their love and relationship. Bunter is portrayed by George Telfer as the upright stiff and loyal servant who rather curiously gives shoulder massages to his new mistress! 

Monday, 14 February 2022

REVIEW: The House at Cold Hill at the Mill at Sonning

This is the fortieth anniversary of the Mill at Sonning and Sally Hughes’s programme for the year reflects past successes in programming the unique dinner theatre venue. Recent successes of the musical Top Hat and the delightful immersive show Still Life return later in the year, and Ray Cooney’s Funny Money is staged this autumn, the thirty-third Cooney comedy season at the venue alongside Hughes herself directing after a five-year gap Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in the summer. Brian Blessed another regular at the venue directs Busman’s Holiday in April. In 2017 they staged Peter James’s Dead Simple horror thriller and so in 2022 another of his books has been adapted for their stage by Shaun McKenna, The House at Cold Hill. It is clear that she knows her audience and the mix of shows they expect to see each year that will keep them coming back to this delightful venue.

The House at Cold Hill is however a fresh challenge as the horror genre requires some special stage effects to create a shocking thriller that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. The masterful Woman in Black has set a high standard with genuine jump shocks that keep thrilling the audience and the technology in illusions on such shows as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Back to the Future and Ghost at the Piccadilly in 2011 show what can be achieved on bigger budgets. The challenge, therefore, is how to create the sense of a haunted house in a smaller venue where the audience is so close. The Mill’s solution is to rely on the sound and special effects designer Graham Weymouth and some projected images and light effects. If you can’t create spine chilling effects with this genre the temptation must be to go for a comic send-up along the lines of Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit with Madam Arcati, the clairvoyant. This production falls between the two ends of the spectrum being neither played fully for the horror nor for laughs although there are occasions where the audience reaction was to giggle rather than gasp.

Friday, 28 January 2022

REVIEW: Still Life at the Mill at Sonning

In late 2021 the Mill at Sonning in Berkshire staged a wonderful production of Top Hat and the Watermill in Newbury staged Brief Encounter with the music of Noel Coward to delight audiences returning to these welcoming and exciting venues after lockdown. While many venues seem to be struggling to put on shows these two venues start their 2022 seasons with an immersive experience at The Mill of Still Life, the original Coward play on which Brief Encounter was based and the Watermill opens a brand-new play of Spike, about Spike Milligan, at the end of the month. Berkshire audiences are very well served by these wonderful venues and their interesting programmes.

Still Life was written by Coward in 1936 as one of nine one act plays which were presented under the banner Tonight at 8.30. He scripted and produced the classic black and white film, Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean in 1945. Artistic Director Sally Hughes made the bold decision to stage the original play in her downstairs bar rather than her theatre and to create a unique immersive experience. Director Tam Williams delivers on the concept using the intimate space cleverly to place the audience on tables in the railway cafe of Milford Station so that we feel we are eavesdropping on the conversations of the staff and visitors waiting for their trains to depart. 

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

REVIEW: Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning

When we saw the wonderful 1934 Anything Goes musical revival at the Barbican this summer, I wondered how long it would be before I saw anything that good again with its starry cast, fabulous production values, funny script, and delightful Cole Porter music. Yet the Mill at Sonning’s revival of the 2013 stage version of the 1935 RKO Pictures classic black and white Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat, featuring the music of Irving Berlin, runs it a very close second on a fraction of the budget . This remarkable intimate little theatre is making something of a habit with brilliantly staged and choreographed musicals for Christmas following successes with My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls and Singing in the rain.

The auditorium has been transformed into an Art Deco/Egyptian wall which opens up to become the stage of Broadway and West End shows, hotel rooms in London and Venice and intervening external locations. Its cleverly designed by Jason Denvir to facilitate slick changes but creates clear distinctive locations with the wonderful lighting design, by Nic Farman, not only beautifully changing the colours but also adding nice touches with room numbers projected on the floor to provide important clarity about which floor we were on or a red spot to illuminate a top hat. It sets a perfect scene and is a great showcase for the talents of Master Carpenter and his team of scenic artistes. The design allows the maximum space to be available for the big showstopping dance sequences while still providing more intimate spaces for the comedy and romance.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

REVIEW: Move over Mrs Markham at the Mill at Sonning

The Mill at Sonning has been undergoing an overdue refurbishment and modernisation of its bar and restaurant of this dinner theatre venue which has been producing more adventurous shows including a recent excellent My Fair Lady. It is therefore a little odd that it should reopen with this incredibly dated farce from the seventies . It's characters and language are firmly rooted in that time before political correctness and changing attitudes altered for ever the acceptable bounds of comedy. Yet the original coauthor and director of this production, Ray Conney, now in his eighties, gets his cast to whole heartedly embrace the seventies language and style and transports us back to 1970. What is more the audience is lapping it up by the time the riotous confusion builds to its conclusion.

The set is the Markham's one bedroom 1st floor apartment which is being redecorated in garish seventies styles and colours by Alistair Spenlow and as required for farce features multiple doors to the bedroom, bathroom, bar, study, au pairs room and the stairs to the publishers offices below as well as a window to the road outside. After the slow first half sets up the different relationships and planned liaisons, the second half explodes into a manic frantic covering up of identities with at different times each door hiding a character. It is brilliantly timed farce that provides plenty of opportunities for startled surprise, lecherous grins and confused looks. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles at Mill at Sonning

Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles is a familiar title from its multiple TV and film versions over the years but the detailed story from the original serialised book published in 1902 is less well known but has been less rarely adapted for the stage. Simon Williams and his son Tam have taken on the challenge of bringing all the detailed plot elements to the stage for this new play at the Mill at Sonning. It is an ambitious idea set as it is in multiple locations in London and Dartmoor with several interlinked plot lines involving an escaped convict, a mysterious Hound and two couples with guilty secrets. Although they effectively incorporate all the story elements into the play, the adaption is too literal from the book and the staging is clunky and laboured.

The set design by Michael Holt is one brown tone with a raised sloping platform upstage centre framed by two brown drapes which is mainly used to indicate Dartmoor landscape. The forestage becomes the location of interiors in London and Dartmoor with just a single piece of furniture or the area around those buildings. While the platform does successfully represent rocky outcrops on the moor in some scenes it does also involve various passages where characters climb up and over for no obvious reason. There is no real sense of location and the drab brown colour also mutes any lighting effects projected on to it.
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