Tag Archives: Jerome K Jerome



The Mill at Sonning

THREE MEN IN A BOAT at The Mill at Sonning


“It won’t rock the boat too much as it drifts along on its stream of witty dialogue pleasantly enough”

Published in 1889, Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with snippets of local history thrown in. But unwittingly, the author’s natural flair for comedy took over the narrative and Jerome found himself with an instant best seller on his hands. Since then, it has never been out of print and, even if not everybody has read it, most people are familiar with its title. It is simultaneously dated yet, quite rightly, resists being placed in a contemporary context. Instead, his style and influence can be seen in modern-day equivalents such as Bill Bryson, or more specifically Pete McCarthy. And even Tim Dowling owes his self-deprecating gift for focusing on the commonplace in part to Jerome.

Nothing much happens at all in “Three Men in a Boat”. That is much of its beauty, so to translate that onto the stage is going to be a tall order. Clive Francis’ adaptation moves it forward in time to the eve of World War I, although we only get a glimpse of this representation – albeit a powerful one – towards the end. The preceding couple of hours is a faithful reproduction of the book which doesn’t always translate into a particularly interesting piece of theatre.



We meet the characters: Jerome (George Watkins), his banker chum George (James Bradshaw) and the eccentric Harris (Sean Rigby) discussing their various, real and imagined ailments; the three actors quickly and neatly establishing the personalities of the odd trio. While none of them can decide quite what they are suffering from, they all agree that it has been brought on by overwork. A change of scene is what is needed. Sean Cavanagh’s authentically detailed set provides this by cleverly opening up from its Edwardian Kensington apartment into a nostalgic backdrop of the Thames riverbank. The three friends then cram themselves into a boat that is far too small for comfort (especially for the week-long cruise they are embarking on). It’s a good job their canine companion is imagined – its presence represented by sound alone.

We also meet some interesting and colourful characters along the way (lockkeepers, country-bumpkins, pub-locals, boastful fishermen), all played in turn by the three men in the boat. The technique allows for touches of farcical humour, and thanks to the performers’ versatility and swift shapeshifting, we are never confused. Director Joe Harmston relies on the device too much, however, diluting the dramatic impact. The narrative works best when the three men are just being themselves, and we are afforded personal access to their close-knit camaraderie. Yes, tempers occasionally fray but Watkins, Bradshaw and Rigby never let us forget the deep-rooted sense of loyalty and companionship that true friendship offers. The second act strongly reinforces that underlying message.

“To friendship and loyalty” they toast in the final moments. The tone shifts into a minor key as the hum of warplanes drifts from the horizon. It is a fleeting and poignant footnote. But overall, “Three Men in a Boat” is as comforting as a gently meandering tributary. It won’t rock the boat too much as it drifts along on its stream of witty dialogue pleasantly enough. Some of us might need something more challenging, but we all need every now and then the refreshing and easy-going escapism that this show has to offer. And the Mill at Sonning is the perfect setting for it. As Jerome K. Jerome writes in the book; ‘… it is the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river… more like a stage village’. You won’t be swept away, but it’s definitely worth getting on board.


THREE MEN IN A BOAT at The Mill at Sonning

Reviewed on 15th June 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Andreas Lambis






Previously reviewed at this venue:

CALENDAR GIRLS | ★★★★ | April 2024
HIGH SOCIETY | ★★★★ | December 2023
IT’S HER TURN NOW | ★★★ | October 2023
GYPSY | ★★★★★ | June 2023
TOP HAT | ★★★★ | November 2022
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK | ★★★★ | July 2022



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Review of The Passing of the Third Floor Back – 2 Stars


The Passing of the Third Floor Back

Finborough Theatre

Reviewed – 30th November 2017


“the text is stilted and overflowing with platitudes that dilute the message”


A cold November or December evening seems the ideal time to head to the Finborough Theatre for, what is billed as, “a unique rediscovery” of ‘The Passing of the Third Floor Back’. Set in London, in 1907, at Christmas, it is described by its author as “an idle fancy” and was one of the longest running West End hits of its time.

The story focuses on a lodging house, home to an assorted group of unscrupulous residents. They all seem to be clinging precariously to their social positions with only one figure, the wealthy self-made businessman Mr Wright, being truly successful. The house is owned by the grasping Mrs Sharpe, who mistreats her maid, Stasia, a rehabilitated juvenile delinquent. The various members of the household are miserable and openly sneering and rude towards each other, the one exception being the respect shown by all to the powerful Mr Wright. In the case of one couple, Major Tompkins and his wife, this involves putting pressure on their daughter Vivian to marry Wright in spite of her obvious horror at the idea.

All of this is thrown off balance by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, who takes a room on “the third floor back”, and whose talk makes each character realise the selfishness and narrowness of their existence. Written back in 1908 by Jerome K Jerome (famous for his comic masterpiece ‘Three Men In A Boat’) it is definitely of its time, and Jasmine Swan’s set and costume wonderfully evoke the Edwardian feel, complementing the language and sensibilities. The atmosphere is impressed upon us as soon as we enter the space. A virginal dominates the stage, while a lone harp player fills the dimly lit air with beautiful melodies. The virtuosity of the harpist, Lizzie Faber, who underscores much of the action, is indeed one of the highlights of the production.

However, this introduction creates expectations that the unfolding plot fails to satisfy. Although it pre-empts ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and draws on the themes of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (and there are even moments where one can imagine a fledgling J. B. Priestley taking notes) the text is stilted and, surprisingly from the pen of Jerome K Jerome, overflowing with platitudes that dilute the message. The moralising is tiresome, patronising and repetitive.

This is an obvious challenge to the cast who are clearly doing their best, but all too often there is an apologetic feel to the performances. No real character decisions seem to have been made that could have saved the text by injecting some life into it, and Jonny Kelly’s direction does little to shape the piece for a contemporary audience. But in all fairness to the very able cast they are fighting against the words they have been given – and the intimacy of the space makes this show in their eyes.

This show has the potential to be a festive, feel-good morality tale – an antidote to the cold evenings that are drawing in – but somewhere this effect has been lost in the seventy years since it was last performed on the London stage.


Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Nick Rutter




The Passing of the Third Floor Back

is at the Finborough Theatre until 22nd December



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