Home » London Theatre Reviews » Three Men in a Boat at The Mill at Sonning | Review

Three Men in a Boat at The Mill at Sonning | Review

I wrote some of this review sat in a local café, during one of those ‘summer’ days where the wind is blowing, and the rain is lashing down intermittently. I was reminded of the stage directions for Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, where it is a summer evening, but “There is a wood fire burning because it is an English summer evening”. The café manager, rushing to retrieve an outdoor sign advertising his specials that had blown away (the sign, not the specials), told us, “Everything is under control except the weather!”

Sean Rigby, James Bradshaw and George Watkins in Three Men in a Boat. Photo by Andreas Lambis
Sean Rigby, James Bradshaw and George Watkins in Three Men in a Boat. Photo by Andreas Lambis

Similar sentiments might have been said by any one of the three men in a boat – Jerome (George Watkins), Harris (Sean Rigby) or George (James Bradshaw), who take about a week to go from Kingston to Oxford along the River Thames, sometimes battling the elements. There’s more to it than that – it’s not quite the theatrical equivalent of the motion picture Snakes on a Plane. The narrative meanders about as much as the river does, which isn’t to everyone’s taste, especially as it’s entirely possible to leave the show wondering if anything at all has happened aside from the journey: there’s a fair amount of recollections of previous events, and rather predictably, the men have differing opinions with regards to what precisely happened, and who said what to whom, and with what intent, and so on.

As ever, the theatrical experience at The Mill at Sonning begins with a two-course meal in a lovely restaurant, before the audience take their seats in the auditorium – the evening performances don’t start until 8:15pm. In the current set-up, the main meal is as large or as small as you prefer, thanks to a buffet service (assistance is provided for the mobility impaired). I’ve never yet had a bad dining experience there (there was one time I hadn’t eaten much on account of a bout of gastroenteritis, but that can hardly be blamed on the venue) and the desserts were delicious without being too saccharine.

Food proved to be a frequent topic of conversation in the show, if only because options are rather limited on a boat. One of the trio, or perhaps all of them, had forgotten to bring a tin opener, with hilarious consequences. Some still image projections help provide context and scenery, and the vocabulary in the text is exquisite. The portrayal of the dog Montmorency was achieved purely by sound effects, which was a nice touch – if anything, it kept the audience’s focus and attention on the actors, who might have otherwise (if other productions that feature a live dog are anything to go by) be so smitten by the canine that almost everything else becomes secondary. Mind you, the sight of a dead corgi (or, technically, the puppet of one) gliding across the stage as though it were floating along the river being eventually carried out to sea was mildly shocking, not least because the men had only just been convinced that river water was safe for consumption.

There are songs to enjoy too – a good number of people in the audience on press night knew the words when invited to join in. Local places are name-checked in the narrative, with Maidenhead considered “too snobby to be pleasant”, and the mention of Sonning (perhaps inevitably) received hearty cheers. The re-setting of the story to just before the outbreak of World War One gave the ending a poignant feel, and even called to mind the ending of BBC Television’s Blackadder Goes Forth. The show provides a timely reminder, as the nation has recently marked the eighth anniversary of the D-Day landings, never to take leisurely boat trips, or anything in life, for granted. A genteel and pleasant production, and a wholesome couple of hours of escapism, the show is highly engaging and manages to avoid being overly sentimental.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Cast & Creative
James Bradshaw – George
Sean Rigby – Harris
George Watkins – Jerome K. Jerome

Joe Harmston – Director
Sean Cavanagh – Set Designer
Natalie Titchener – Costume Designer
Mike Robertson – Lighting Designer
Tom Lishman – Sound Designer
Kate Plantin – Casting Director

Jerome K. Jerome’s classic Victorian memoir, Three Men In A Boat has been gloriously adapted by celebrated star of stage and screen, Clive Francis (The Crown, A Clockwork Orange, Entertaining Mr. Sloane) preserving the timeless humour and infusing it with a fresh and vibrant touch for contemporary audiences.

This warm and witty play invites you on an uproarious journey down the meandering waters of the Thames with the delightful trio of friends Harris, George, and Jerome, as they set sail on an unforgettable adventure through the English countryside, each twist and turn bringing a fresh dose of laughter and unexpected encounters. So, pack your bags, grab your oars, and prepare to be swept away by the camaraderie, and mischievous antics of this unforgettable trio, as they navigate not just the river’s currents but the comical currents of life itself.

When in 1889 Jerome K Jerome took his fictionalised friends up the Thames in a rowing boat  –
describing Sonning as being “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river…more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar” – his book was an instant success. Within a year river boating licences had doubled; Jerome had created a lifestyle craze. And the book has never been out of print since…

by Jerome K. Jerome
adapted by Clive Francis
The Mill at Sonning
6 June – 13 July 2024


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