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  • Writer's pictureSarah

Review of 'Top Hat' at the Mill at Sonning 2022

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Situated on the Thames, Sonning Eye in Berkshire is the quintessential English village; narrow lanes, wonky houses, historic pubs, and it's the home of the Mill at Sonning (as well as the home of George Clooney).

Muddy river surrounded by trees with old water mill in the background
The pretty view of the rear of the Mill at Sonning

There's actually been a mill here since before 1086, as it is mentioned in the Doomsday Book. Whilst this isn't that mill, it does date back the 18th Century. The dinner theatre opened on the site in 1982. The restoration is beautiful, including a view of the water wheel from within the bar.

The water wheel in action - view inside the bar behind glass window
The water wheel in action - view inside the bar

The management team here really know their Home Counties audience, and give them what they love. Familiar, nostalgic pieces of work, with a feel-good factor. You know that you aren't going to see anything shocking or challenging or difficult at the Mill at Sonning. Instead you'll see productions worthy of a much bigger theatre which will leave you walking out with a smile on your face.

Putting the food and theatre experience together is very clever, and it makes for a pleasurable experience. The package consists of a 2 course meal; a buffet main course which on the day I was invited ranged from beef shin pie, trout marinara, lemon & thyme chicken, to a vegetarian lasagne, with lots of choice of vegetables and salads. This is followed by a choice of desserts or cheese and biscuits and coffee served to the table.

Oak beamed open plan dining area with white linen tablecloths
Dining area in the Mill at Sonning

Suitably replenished, the audience then makes it's way into the theatre for the show. It's not large, seating just 215 in the semi-round. In this production use is made of every bit of space, with the cast frequently entering and exiting the stage via the aisles.

The set design for Top Hat by Jason Denvir is very clever. In Art Deco style in shades of green and dusty pink, it manages to transform itself from Broadway to London and to the Venetian Lido with very little effort. There is a clever use of projections giving numbers on the floor to make clear exactly in which hotel room the drama is taking place.

The costumes by Natalie Titchener are spot on for the opulent and decadent 1930s. The women look amazing in their cut on-the bias-dresses, and of course the men look dashing in their formal wear - the top hat of the show's name (and tails of course). The teal dress worn by Billy-Kay is especially beautiful, and in fact her costumes all echo the colours of the set design.

Based on the 1935 film of the same name, ‘Top Hat’ tells the story of Broadway sensation Jerry Travers (played by the fabulous Jonny Labey), who dances from a successful career on Broadway to London, where his backer Horace Hardwick hopes that the magic will also happen.

Woman and man dancing dressed in 1930s clothing
Dancing Cheek to Cheek - Jonny Labey and Billy-Kay. Photo credit Andreas Lambis

Along the way, true love blossoms with society girl Dale Tremont, played by the extremely beautiful and talented Billie-Kay. If everything went smoothly there wouldn't be much of a story to tell. So, in a dramatic rouse used by playwrights for centuries, there is confusion over mistaken identity. Billie-Kay manages to convey the right level of feistiness and vulnerability within Dale. There is a genuine chemistry between her and Jonny Labey, even if the plot is a little silly.

When Jonny compliments her upon her dancing, she uses the quote mis-appropriated to Ginger Rogers, "Yes, I did everything that you did, but backwards and in high heels".

Man holding a cooked steak on his hand resting on a napkin
Bates about to put a hot cooked steak on Horace's black eye - this is an uneasy master-servant relationship!. Photo credit Andreas Lambis

There's plenty of humour too supplied by other characters, mostly by Horace (played by Paul Kemble with aplomb), his acerbic wife Madge (Julia J Nagle), and by Horace's valet, Bates (Brendan Cull) upon whom much of the plot rests. I really loved the song where Horace and Madge describe everything that they hate about other (and after only 3 years of marriage!).

The other comedic character is the hapless Italian dress designer Beddini (played by Paul Rees), the man who dresses Dale and who wants to marry her, and he does - or does he?

Underpinning every scene are Irving Berlin’s magnificent songs including ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’, ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day’, and of course, ‘TopHat, White Tie & Tails’.

All of these tunes were ones that my mum loved, and I left thinking how much she'd have enjoyed this excellent production if she were still alive. If she was, I'd be booking us seats pronto. This is a production to take you smiling into Christmas.

When: 16 November - 30 December, 2022.

Evening performances from Wed - Sat

Sat and Sun matinees from 19 Nov

Sun evenings 11 and 18 Dec

Midweek matinees 22, 28, 29 Dec

Food: Lunch is served from 12.15pm for matinees and dinner is served from 6.15pm for evening shows

Performance times: Matinee performances commence at 2.15pm and evening performances at 8.15pm.

Following the performance the bar is open, and on Friday and Saturday evenings there is live music

Price: £76, including the meal

Address: The Mill at Sonning Theatre Ltd, Sonning Eye, RG4 6TY Reading

(0118) 969 8000

Mon - Sat | 10am - 8pm

Nearest major station is Reading, which is a 10 minute taxi ride away.



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