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Towards Zero at The Mill at Sonning | Review

TOWARDS ZERO, Mill at Sonning Noel White as Matthew Treves and George Telfer as Superintendent Battle Photo by Andreas Lambis.
TOWARDS ZERO, Mill at Sonning Noel White as Matthew Treves and George Telfer as Superintendent Battle Photo by Andreas Lambis.

The Mill at Sonning is a restaurant and 215 seat theatre situated on the outskirts of Reading (20 minutes by train from London) on the banks of the Thames. It was converted from a vast watermill and has been a performance venue since 1984. For about £50 one can enjoy a superb two-course meal as well as seeing a play or concert.

Visiting The Mill is deservedly a much-anticipated and highly enjoyable experience. The buffet-style restaurant is in the very capable hands of executive chef Kieron Daniels, who himself serves each member of the audience with either a roast – very tasty and tender gammon when I visited – or another hot dish such as the delicious steak pie, one of the house’s signature dishes, as well as fish, a vegetarian/vegan option and a copious variety of vegetables and salad. Desserts, if you have room!, are ‘moreish’ and drinks very reasonably priced.

The meal is served two hours before the performance so one never feels rushed. Indeed, the venue has received a ‘Most Welcoming Theatre’ award for the last three years.

The current play on offer is Agatha Christie’s Toward’s Zero, originally written in 1944, then revised for London’s West End by Gerald Verner (author of the Sexton Blake stories) in 1956 and is a typical ‘whodunnit’, having been written at a time when entertaining the audience was paramount, even if today some of the dialogue seems a little stilted. However Christie’s plays still work, as this production proves, and of course two of her other works are running in London’s West End today!

The director, Brian Blessed, his fourth Christie production for The Mill, obviously realised that in order to be effective the play has to be taken seriously and played naturalistically by all involved. This is not easy as the first act contains all the information we, the audience, needs to know in order to work out who murdered whom before the characters do! Of course, we do not succeed in our quest – certainly not in this play where the denouement is surprising, as it should be! The audience at the performance I attended were clearly shocked, judging by their reaction!

A truly ensemble cast of twelve includes octogenarian Hildegard Neil as an eminently watchable Lady Tresillian, in whose house the machinations occur, plus her real-life daughter Rosalind Blessed as her forceful companion Mary, Rob Heanley as a likeable Neville Strange, Bethan Nash as his ever-jealous current wife and wispy Kate Tydman as his former wife. The ‘Law’ is represented by George Telfer, playing a very believable Superintendent Battle (supposedly Christie’s favourite detective), Chris Pybuss, whose hairstyle would not have been permitted in the police force of the 1950s!, as Inspector Leach and suave Noel White as Matthew Treves, the solicitor. There is also an uncredited uniformed police constable who would not have been wearing spectacles in the 1950s police either! Just to further confuse the audience even more, there is an attractive young rake in the form of Ted Latimer – a greasy, ever-smiling Duncan Wilkins (surely he must be the murderer?) – and pipe-smoking Thomas Royle, who seems very suspicious!

The superbly detailed set, redolent of the period and with an all prevalent ‘clock’ theme, is by Dinah England, and dashing, evocative costumes by Natalie Titchener. Lighting and superb sound effects by Matthew Biss greatly aid the mood of the play at various times as do (SPOILER coming up!) the skills of fight director Alison Burgh.

All great fun, as a Christie play should be, and no one in my party worked out or guessed ‘whodunnit’.

Visiting The Mill at Sonning was a superbly enjoyable experience: excellent food followed by the sort of play that is no one writes these days! Nostalgia reigns! Highly recommended, and not only for a ‘special occasion’!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Summer is that time when the inimitable Brian Blessed visits Sonning to direct one of Agatha Christie’s classic thrillers.

The combination of Christie & Blessed has proved a winning formula for The Mill, helped by the special relationship that Brian had with the Queen of Crime. He met and worked with her when he was a young actor at Nottingham Repertory Theatre. Their friendly conversations informed Brian about how she would have liked to see her plays directed. She told Brian that Towards Zero was acclaimed by the novelist Robert Graves as by far her best and most dramatic novel, and in 1956, Gerald Verner adapted it into a play.

DIRECTOR: BRIAN BLESSED
SET DESIGNER: DINAH ENGLAND
FIGHT DIRECTOR: ALISON DE BURGH
PRODUCTION PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDREAS LAMBIS

CAST LIST:
Rosalind Blessed – Mary Aldin
Rob Heanley – Nevile Strange
Patrick Myles – Thomas Royde
Bethan Nash – Kay Strange
Hildegard Neil – Lady Tressilian
Chris Pybus – Inspector Leach
George Telfer – Superintendent Battle
Kate Tydman – Audrey Strange
Noel White – Matthew Treves
Duncan Wilkins – Ted Latimer

8 AUGUST – 28 SEPTEMBER 2019
https://www.millatsonning.com/

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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