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The Mill at Sonning

Box office

0118 969 8000

Sonning Eye, Reading, RG4 6TY.

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Reviews of Three Men in a Boat

6th June to 13th July 2024

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Three chaps from a long-gone age, float down the Thames singing the Eton Boating Song and Champagne Charlie - no not an election stunt…

First published in 1889, Jerome K Jerome’s novel was an immediate success and has been in print ever since.

Maybe it was the way the book suggested an idyllic life in England at that time with nothing better for three old pals to do than sail up the river Thames to Oxford in a rowing boat and bask in the summer sunshine? In his programme notes, director Joe Harmston points out that although JKJ created a lifestyle craze for boats and boating licences, literature had a different outlook. The decade after Three Men produced novels like War Of The Worlds and Dracula. Did Wells and Bram Stoker know something nobody else did?

Harmston’s production moves the action forward to around 1909 just a few years before the Great War of 1914 and rubs in the point by showing a back projection picture later on of the three men in army uniform looking sombre. This, however, was mostly about his lively production that never for one instant suggests anything but a carefree jaunt up the Thames by three pals.

James Bradshaw played George, the contented but somewhat stuffy bank clerk and George Rigby was effective as the bright and bubbly Harris. George Watkins had fun as the author and narrator, a cheeky chappie full of fun and humour and a little intolerant of anybody outside his own circle that got in his way. I was sorry this production did not include Montmorency the dog, but the three actors took turns to provide his barks and growls along the way.

Difficult indeed to play effectively on stage, the director chose to present all the action casually, engaging the audience at times with the three actors in their boat and off it, playing themselves mostly but now and again breaking into a working man’s dialogue to play lock or inn keepers along the way and even, late on, play four men making outrageous claims about a giant fish they had caught. All claimed the same catch and each man increased the weight and size of the big fish considerably.

It was all great fun with three chaps from a long-gone age, floating down the river singing songs like the Eton Boating Song and Champagne Charlie. They even sang Two Lovely Black Eyes and performed a music hall act at the end.

An enjoyable production that ended cheerfully, even if Harmston insisted on showing that picture of the three in army uniform to remind us about how the world changed forever in 1914.

DEREK ANSELL

Review from The Telegraph.

Wistful, evocative, and packed with eccentric English humour

four stars

A trip to the Mill at Sonning – the picturesque Thameside theatre in rural Berkshire, where dinner is included as part of the theatre ticket – is always something of an escape. So it feels appropriate to launch the summer season with a charming new production of Jerome K. Jerome’s escapist comic classic. There is something rather exciting, too, in the fact that the very river along which the three men travel actually flows beneath the converted watermill theatre, and Sonning itself appears in the novel, described as “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river”. 

This is a story that lulls along, with no force pushing the plot onwards except the gentle rowing of the boat. Beyond some gentle mocking of French and German food, and a comic set piece involving the boat cover that just about hints at innuendo, there is nothing here that could be considered risqué. There is a risk that adapting such an emphatically sun-kissed vision of pre-war England could descend into stuffiness. But the jokes in Clive Francis’s adaptation have just enough of a pull to the absurd for there to be a lively sense of the unexpected, while superb comic acting from the three leads keeps the story exceptionally sparky. 

Each actor embodies a slightly camp gentleman archetype, who collectively capture something of the essence of idle upper classes. George Watkins makes a wonderfully fruity Jerome, with a twinkly smile fixed to his face, and a touch of Kenneth Williams about him. James Bradshaw, meanwhile, presents a gentler and slightly nasal figure in George, while Sean Rigby has something of Brian Blessed about him in his portrayal of Harris: a large, jocular figure with ruddy features, and a love of singing music hall classics (which older members of the audience will likely sing along to). 

The problem of how to represent the fourth traveller, fox terrier Montmorency, is solved by simply having the three actors mime his presence. It has the happy effect of adding a new comic dimension to the canine companion, as opposed to distracting us with a puppet. 

Pains are taken to capture the multi-faceted spirit of the novel, with narrative modes from sentimental travelogue to slapstick farce all featured. It is, though, the comic passages of the novel that have ensured its continued celebration, as the regular peals of laughter rippling across the auditorium will testify. Some of them, such as the famous anecdote of the stuffed trout, lose some of their impact when translated to the stage, but others, such as George’s tale of bringing two particularly smelly cheeses back from Liverpool, remain genuinely hilarious. 

Sean Cavanagh’s set transforms from an elegant if cluttered London apartment to a picturesque riverside scene, complete with a sweet wooden rowing boat for the three leads to hop in. Natalie Tichener’s costumes include old-fashioned straw hats, and three wonderfully garish striped jackets that help capture a sense of the pre-World War One bliss. 

While fun and colourful, these sentimental designs also remind us that this is a world that no longer exists. And while ugliness and discomfort are feelings totally avoided in this production, there is also subtle sadness that builds in the background: that this might be a story of total familiarity, but it is taking place in a country that has been completely lost to time. A snapshot of the warmest of friendships, just ahead of the modern era dawning. 

NICK FERRIS

There are reviews from

MyWokingham ("the sort of show which keeps a smile on your face throughout"), LondonTheatre1 ("a genteel and pleasant production... the show is highly engaging and manages to avoid being overly sentimental" - ★★★★), West End Best Friend ("a likable piece of nonsense" - ★★★), The Reviews Hub ("perhaps the bigger star, though, is Sean Cavanagh’s ingenious set design" - ★★★), Fairy Powered Productions ("nostalgia, fun and a summer vibe that we all need right now" - ★★★★), TheSpyInTheStalls ("as comforting as a gently meandering tributary" - ★★★).

For more details

see the Mill's web site at millatsonning.com.

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