The Mill at Sonning
Reviewed – 17th August 2019
“The script is delightfully playful and does not take itself too seriously”
Overlooking the banks of the River Thames, The Mill at Sonning is the UK’s only permanent dinner theatre. Wooden beams and a working water mill decorate the bar and restaurant and beautiful grounds surround this impressive venue. The theatre’s out-of-the-way location makes it the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery to unfold …
Towards Zero is a detective novel by the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie and is thus packed with suspense, atmosphere and unexpected twists and turns. Adapted for the theatre in 1956 by Gerald Verner, The Mill at Sonning’s production is no doubt aided by its director Brian Blessed’s friendship with Christie as a young actor at Nottingham Repertory Theatre.
The play is quintessential Christie. Elderly matriarch Lady Tressillian (Hildegard Neil) has invited her wards for their annual visit to her home at Gull’s Point. There is cause for celebration: Thomas Royde (Patrick Myles) has just returned from a seven-year stint overseas. However, Nevile Strange (Rob Heanley) creates tension by inviting both his ex-wife Audrey (Kate Tydman) and new wife Kay (Bethan Nash) to join him, the latter of whom retaliates by socialising with old flame Ted Latimer (Duncan Wilkins). The visit soon takes a horrifying turn when Lady Tressillian’s ill-treated dogsbody companion Mary Aldin (Rosalind Blessed) is found passed out and a dead body discovered soon after. With no possible motive, Superintendent Battle (George Telfer), his nephew Inspector Leach (Chris Pybus) and criminology enthusiast Matthew Treves (Noel White) must put their heads together to solve the most confusing of cases.
Each ticket includes a two-course meal in the restaurant before the show. The audience is spoiled for choice with a delicious main course buffet before the tantalising dessert is brought to the table. After a leisurely lunch, guests can wander around the grounds or enjoy a drink in the bar before showtime.
The theatre is surprisingly intimate, and the semi-round stage allows the audience to feel involved in the performance. The set (Dinah England) consists of an intricately designed living room with doors to the left and right of the stage. A raised platform and bay windows form the backdrop. Seating arrangements and a drinks trolley decorate the space. The lighting (Matthew Biss) and pale-coloured furniture are successful in making the room appear airy and that of a summer home. Lighting is also used well elsewhere to spotlight and cast suspicion on different characters.
The script is delightfully playful and does not take itself too seriously. There are some wonderfully self-referential moments within the production such as when Royde turns on the radio to list to a show entitled ‘Red Herring’ shortly after the audience sees an argument between two individuals. Royde also quips that the Edgar Wallace novel he is reading is ‘not as good as Christie’ much to the amusement of the audience. The costumes (Natalie Titchener) are pleasingly fitting with Nash’s poppy dress of particular note.
Neil is the standout star and commands the stage and her fellow actors. White comes into his element in the second half of the play and brilliantly describes the concept of ‘Zero Hour’ – the time of the murder which is a culmination of many different circumstances converging at one point – which underlines the play’s premise. Pybus is given most of the play’s most humorous lines and delivers them well.
The beautiful grounds, scrumptious pre-show lunch and wonderful theatre makes Blessed’s production of Towards Zero a winning combination. Visiting The Mill at Sonning is much more than just seeing a play, it is a unique experience and is a definite ‘must’ for every theatregoer.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Andreas Lambis
The Mill at Sonning until 28th September
Previous ten shows covered by this reviewer: