The Mill, Sonning – until 11 March 2023
The delightfully picturesque Mill at Sonning offers comfort food both literally and theatrically in this converted 18th century flour mlll on a tiny island in the Thames, about half an hour by car outside Reading. After a very good buffet lunch or dinner, it’s a couple of steps into the semi-circular auditorium for a production that proves appropriate post-prandial entertainment for a well-heeled, predominantly silver-haired crowd. They’re not trying to reinvent the (water)wheel here, but it’s a formula that basically works.
Sonning is in an affluent commuter belt area, and Jill Hyem’s undemanding comedy, where the thought of retirement in a picture book cottage in Haslemere is the biggest trauma one of the principal characters has to face, is perfectly suited to this venue’s core audience. This is the sort of fare that might have run for years on Shaftesbury Avenue in the mid- 20th century and, despite references to Brexit and the internet, and the use of mobile phones, We’ll Always Have Paris feels like a throwback to that simpler era.
From the moment Elizabeth Elvin’s retired English headmistress Nancy arrives on Michael Holt’s attractive Parisian garret set unwrapping smelly fromages and whipping out baguettes and bottles of wine, it’s clear this is going to be a somewhat clichéd view of life in the French capital. That impression is further enhanced by the appearance of Charlot, Richard Keep’s ridiculously handsome, authentically accented odd job man, a Jean Dujardin lookalike with a sideline in serenading ‘Les dames anglais’ whilst accompanying himself on the guitar. Elvin and Keep have an easy, convincing rapport that transcends the slightly obvious nature of what they’ve been given to do.
Charlot enjoys an almost-romance with Natalie Ogle’s likeable Anna, newly widowed and in Paris to visit her friend, but it’s actually the friendship between the women, including potty-mouthed, cosmetically enhanced, sexually rampant Raquel (Debbie Arnold providing a welcome shot of raunch and glamour) that is the main point of Hyem’s script. In Sally Hughes’ nimble production, that aspect of the play lands extremely well: Elvin, Ogle and Arnold create a credible dynamic as a trio of privileged women who were once at school together but whose lives then took wildly differing paths.
Having established this relationship so well, it’s a shame that Hyem then slightly undermines her own, rather lovely, creation, by tying up Raquel’s storyline too neatly with an unlikely return to a rich former husband, a Vegas wedding and the suggestion she’s never going to see the other women again, thereby making one question the validity of these friendships in the first place.
Ultimately though, We’ll Always Have Paris doesn’t need overthinking. There are moments when the script hints at darker undertows (for instance, Nancy’s distaste for Anna’s late husband or Charlot’s troubled relationship with Basienka Blake’s enjoyably monstrous Parisian landlady) and further exploration of those might make the play as a whole a little more tangy and tasty.
However, Hyem’s writing succeeds in capturing, quite beautifully, the slightly wistful yearning of us Brits (well, many of us Brits anyway) for the sheer elegance and joie de vivre of the City of Light. Dated and a bit safe this English take on a Boulevard Comedy may be, but Hughes’s classy staging and the nicely judged mood and performances will probably make you long to jump on the Eurostar. That said, as a brief escape from London, idyllic Sonning Eye will do just fine.