Mill at Sonning – until 3 August 2019
Plenty of venues do pre-theatre dining, but few do it with the generosity of The Mill at Sonning. For a start, the meal is included in your £51 theatre ticket price, the food is of a surprisingly high quality and everything looks freshly made.
The place could feature in a painting by Constable or a poem by Houseman, such is the lyrically beautiful English village setting on a duck-splashed stretch of the Thames beyond Reading. The building has been in family ownership for hundreds of years, first as a flour mill supplying Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit factory, latterly as a well-supported local theatre.
Artistic director Sally Hughes knows her market: this is a catchment area similar to Richmond or Chichester, and so the repertoire revolves around Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and the occasional musical – Singin’ In The Rain complete with waterworks is expected for Christmas.
Production values are high: sets are built from scratch in an adjacent barn and for the current Private Lives, cleverly designed so as not to interrupt the move from Deauville to Paris between Acts One and Two. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that done so slickly before.
Although star names are occasionally featured the acting reminds you of the splendid days of repertory companies, nobody you’ve seen ‘off the telly’ but competent, well-rounded performances by actors who know their craft.
As Coward’s best-known play, Private Lives is almost indestructible. It’s said there has been a production of it playing somewhere on the planet every night of every year since it was written in 1930. I have a special fondness for the piece – Coward was my dissertation subject at University – and knowing he wrote it during a bout of fever in four days in Shanghai, I’ve even been to room 314 in its Peace Hotel where he typed a lot of the script.
Oh, and I was lined up to be Alan Rickman’s understudy in the 2001 production at the Albery, except I had to withdraw because I got offered a design job in New York at about ten times the salary. Just as well, he was never ‘off’.
As with Present Laughter, currently wowing Andrew Scott fans at the Old Vic, the status and social life of the characters can now feel arcane. It’s increasingly hard to identify with people whose lives are quite so dilettante: in neither play does anyone have a recognisable job or income source, they sleep till noon, flit to and from the continent staying at expensive addresses with apparent ease, and down cocktails at every available opportunity.
But the gift of Private Lives is the sharpness of the dialogue – a series of bantering exchanges mostly between Elyot and Amanda, a self-regarding couple who are besotted with each other but have unwisely divorced and married unsuitable partners. I have long bored people with the suggestion that the bickering, the petty jealousies and the barbed remarks means that in Coward’s mind he was thinking of gay men, and that it should be staged with four male actors.
Tam Williams’ production is clean and crisp, nicely framed with a lady Accordoniste setting the location, and after a slowish start the piece moves up a gear in the scenes involving all four characters, and especially in two well-choreographed fights.
Although she doesn’t get the silk costumes Coward imagined for Gertrude Lawrence – the white Molyneux dress came to him in a fever dream – as Amanda, Eva Jane Willis combines elegant self-assurance with an inner fire which put me in mind of Nicole Kidman.
Maybe they should film it with Kidman and Hugh Jackman … hang on, I’ve got the coast on the other line.
Back in reality, you could question whether it’s still acceptable for a character to reminisce about the first time he hit his wife, but Amanda always hits back, giving Darrell Brockis‘s nicely sardonic Elyot the provocation to comment that ‘certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs’.
It’s another time, another place.
But a lovely place to see it.
until 3 August