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We’ll Always Have Paris – The Mill at Sonning

This play was first put on at The Mill at Sonning in early 2010 – the world has, of course, changed significantly since then, and the script has been updated to reflect more recent events. Set, as the title suggests, in Paris, there is little to distinguish the three British characters from one another – Nancy (Elizabeth Elvin), Anna (Natalie Ogle) and Raquel (Debbie Arnold) are all at a similar stage in life and seem to want more or less similar things from the time they have remaining. It’s good, at the end of the day, to see substantial parts written for older women. There are also two French characters: Charlot (Richard Keep), pronounced, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘sharr-low’, is generous to a fault, while landlady Madame Bouissiron (Basienka Blake) is, according to Nancy, “a bitch”.

Natalie Ogle (Left) Elizabeth Elvin (Centre) Debbie Arnold (Right) Photo Andrea Lambis.
Natalie Ogle (Left) Elizabeth Elvin (Centre) Debbie Arnold (Right). Photo Andrea Lambis.

She isn’t, as it turns out, the landlady from hell – I’ve heard far worse stories from friends and acquaintances. She is, for one thing, a frequent visitor to Nancy’s flat, and expects any issues to be reported to her at the earliest opportunity. A stickler for detail, she is arguably too rigid in sticking to the terms and conditions of her contracts (or agreements, as she calls them), but then, what is the point of having such terms and conditions if they are not enforced? That said, I really didn’t understand why she took on British tenants in the first place if she doesn’t like Brits. Somebody has to be the antagonist, however – absolutely everyone getting on perfectly fine just doesn’t make great theatre.

There’s lots to be amused by in this gentle comedy – Charlot’s English is comprehensive enough to quote Shakespeare and make use of British English idioms, with the inevitable consequence that, every so often, he uses a phrase for the matter at hand being discussed that is technically correct but socially inappropriate. But he’s still learning, so he’s let off the hook. On the other hand, Anna has a learning curve of her own to navigate – despite only being a train ride away from Blighty, she’s not been far from home for so long that being in Paris is a discombobulating experience, requiring some persuasion on Nancy’s part before she allows herself to stay on for longer.

The only moment of true confrontation between the three close friends is a game of Monopoly going awry – otherwise there are, for example, some slightly snarky but ultimately benign remarks about Raquel’s lifestyle and fashion choices, which in this day and age would probably be seen as too judgemental if they were to be taken seriously. Alas, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the French accents in this production, in the sense that they seemed to be quite perfect to me, but what do I know? They were, at least, consistent.

The set design (Michael Holt) broadly follows the layout for other shows in this venue, with the on-stage doors in similar positions – the (lack of) space backstage comes to light when Charlot manoeuvres Anna’s luggage into what looks to be a frightfully small room. As ever at The Mill at Sonning, a buffet dinner is included in the ticket price, making a visit well worth it. A warm, feel-good play that proved to be just the tonic for these dark winter nights.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Three women of a certain age gravitate to Paris. There’s Nancy, a retired Headmistress determined to throw off her shackles; Anna, recently widowed – and free – after years of nursing a sick husband; and Raquel, a divorcee in search of eternal youth and a new toy boy. Add to the mix Charlot, an actor turned handyman who eventually fixes more than just a leaky shower and Madam Boussiron, the archetypal dragon of landladies.

Penned by Jill Hyem – writer of TV series Tenko, Howard’s Way, Wish Me Luck, The House of Elliot – WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS is a feel-good play with laughter and tears. The promise of romance. Lovely love and not so lovely anger. Friendship and loyalty. And the advantages of growing old. Perhaps not La Vie en Rose, but certainly a night to leave you charmed, amused, thoughtful – and most definitely smiling.

Director Sally Hughes
Set Designer Michael Holt
Costume Designer Natalie Titchener

Debbie Arnold – Raquel
Basienka Blake – Madame Boussiron
Elizabeth Elvin – Nancy
Richard Keep – Charlot
Natalie Ogle – Anna

A Romantic Comedy by Jill Hyem
9 JANUARY – 11 MARCH 2023

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