The Mill at Sonning
4 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It’s always a joy to visit The Mill at Sonning ~ So much more than simply a theatre and worth arriving early to take in the beautiful watermill setting before enjoying the fabulous meal that is served as an integral part of the evening prior to the performance.
The latest offering is Busman’s Holiday, a nostalgic trip to the 1930s by Dorothy L. Sayers, co-written by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, with a murder mystery to be solved by Lord Peter Whimsey on his honeymoon. Full of twists and turns as every character has a motive and the means to commit the dastardly deed…
An accomplished cast commit themselves to this throwback in time and style, creating entertaining eccentric characters; with a lovely added dimension to this revival in that it is directed by national treasure Brian Blessed who himself played Bunter the butler in Rep in times gone by. Blessed clearly has nostalgic affection for the piece and has not attempted to modernise or gloss over a long-lost era in which the British class system is central to everything. There are posh accents, plain-speaking and the characters all know and inhabit their places amiably which means the play balances and is true to itself.
Blessed wonderfully and playfully directs his accomplished cast around a stylish English country home set (beautifully designed by Michael Holt) with great elegance and charm (sets are always wonderful at Sonning), and atmospheric lighting from Matthew Bliss. The Mill itself suits this bygone era which might struggle to find its feet today in a contemporary bustling West End.
So what of the murder mystery itself…
Who has committed the dastardly deed?
We are kept guessing until the very end of act 3 with many distractions and possible clues to throw us off the scent from the excellent cast of 11.
Lord Peter, spiffingly played by James Shildon, has arrived back from honeymoon with his beautiful new bride Harriet, elegantly and effervescently played by Kate Tydman, to their new country house bought for £650 from Mr Noakes the previous owner. The honeymooners are blissfully unaware that Mr Puffet, the local chimney sweep, played by Iain Stuart Robertson, is about to not only unblock their chimney of “corroded sut”, but will also reveal puzzling clues to help solve a baffling murder mystery…
Bunter the butler played by George Tyler is a quintessentially British Jeeves or Carson from Downton Abbey. Ever present and constantly on hand to smooth every situation, we also ‘enjoy’ his distress at the mishandling of the vintage port by the clueless (about port!) housekeeper Mrs Ruddle, wonderfully and caustically played by Joanna Brooks. We are moved to care for the increasingly desperate spinster Miss Twitterton played with suitable neuroticism by Helen Bang, whose objectionable uncle William Noakes is the unfortunate murder victim. Bang successfully portrays her on edge and over compensating throughout with some well-judged comedic moments along the way. The object of her affections is the younger gardener, aspiring garage owner Frank Crutchley, suitably moodily played by Christian Ballantyne.
Then of course in any murder mystery there must be a slightly eccentric vicar Reverend Goodacre (Duncan Wilkins), Superintendent Kirk (Noel White) and PC Plod Constable Sellon (Luke Barton). All three do a fine job bringing these staples to life. Oh, and the estate agent Mr McBride (Chris Porter) also appears!
Verging on farce at times, the cast are to be commended for remaining resolutely committed to their characters and throwing us constantly off course with distractions, over-obvious clues, knowing looks and raised eyebrows galore… No-one escapes suspicion!
Acts 1 and 2 run together before the interval with Act 1 introducing characters (with some interesting elegant choreography at times). Act 2 is all about discovering motives for murder with the result that by the interval we are thoroughly confused with everyone bar the young honeymooners, a possible suspect!
A much shorter third act with intense contemplation and a crime scene recreation reveals all! It seems obvious when known but has not been so up until this point ~ Sayers was indeed a master crime writer! And there is much to enjoy along the way.
Such a joy to visit The Mill On Sonning and enjoy not only wonderful theatre but a fabulous meal and wonderful ambience. A real treat and definitely somewhere you can leave the 21st century behind for a few hours and immerse yourself in a far less complicated world.
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