This was my second visit to the Mill at Sonning. My first visit can be found here. I'd loved the first visit to this really pretty part of the Home counties. Driving through Sonning is a risky business with the narrow lanes and crooked houses to gaze it. The theatre can be found just over the single file bridge, which causes quite a traffic snarl, but it's a terribly polite snarl - this is a very 'nice' place! (George Clooney has chosen it as his English home).
The concept at the Mill at Sonning is cleverly executed, a meal and a show package. Why let your customers eat and drink elsewhere beforehand, when you have the space to provide this yourself, and a beautiful space too? The ticket price includes a two course meal, a very decent buffet main course and a waiter served dessert with plenty of choice.
I had the opportunity before the show to chat with Sally Hughes, Managing Director of the Mill and the director of 'We'll Always have Paris' as I'd arrived in good time. I asked her if the play was going to appeal to 'ladies of a certain age', like me, and she said, "you should have heard some of the conversations in the dressing rooms, we've had such a laugh". I was ready to enjoy the play.
Written by Jill Hyem – writer of TV series Tenko, Howard’s Way, Wish Me Luck, and The House of Elliot I knew that this play would appeal to women, as she always has such strong female characters. I wondered if this would be a mix of the Golden Girls/Shirley Valentine but with middle class women.
Escaping to find yourself isn't a new theme, but you can feel the yearning of the three women to be unshackled and different versions of themselves.
We first meet Nancy, played with humour and passion by Elizabeth Elvin, a retired headteacher desperate to escape every committee that Hazelmere might throw at her. Her escape is to Paris, where she has befriended Charlot (played by the rather handsome Richard Keep) the handyman. His English is good, but not perfect, and they have a lot of fun playing with English idioms. How many words can be used to describe a toilet? A lot!
She has invited her old school friend, the recently widowed Anna, played by Natalie Ogle, to spend the weekend in Paris. The idea is to have someone else to look after Anna after she's spent 20 years caring for her invalid husband.
Anna arrives, pale and mousy, and they are joined for lunch by Racquel, a reinvented Rachel, another old school friend. She's used Paris to reinvent herself into a glamorous cougar who is living it up with a toy boy having gone through 5 husbands. Although we have hints that it's not going quite as swimmingly as she makes out.
Played by Debbie Arnold, her arrival in a tight dress, carrying her high heels up the 6 flights of stairs provides a great foil to Nancy's more highbrow love of Paris. It's clear that Nancy doesn't quite approve, and especially not of the trips to Turkey for the odd nip and tuck.
As the play progresses Anna starts to feel the magic of Paris, and the flirtatious Charlot. She has her hair cut, and buys new clothes which gradually get more and more colourful. Her transformation actually made the audience gasp in pleasure.
The fifth character is the archetypal dragon of a landlady, Madame Bouissiron, played by Basienka Blake. Oozing Parisien chic style, she is destainful of her tenants, Les dammes Englese. Needless to say sparks fly, necessitating some tough decisions for the 3 friends.
I loved the set design, where the changes in the time of day were shown through the amount of light coming through window, where the Eiffel Tower twinkled in the evening scenes.
We'll always have Paris is as sweet as the macarons that Nancy buys from the local patisserie. It gives a message about friendships, love, and breaking free from expectations of ladies of a certain age.
Debbie Arnold - Raquel
Basienka Blake - Madame Boussiron
Elizabeth Elvin - Nancy
Richard Keep - Charlot
Natalie Ogle - Anna
Director - Sally Hughes
Set Designer - Michael Holt
Costume Designer - Natalie Titchener
Lighting Designer - Graham Weymouth
Casting Director - Kate Plantin CDG
When:19 January - 11 March 2023
Evening performances from Wed - Sat
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
Box office: firstname.lastname@example.org
(0118) 969 8000
Mon - Sat | 10am - 8pm
Nearest major station is Reading, which is a 10 minute taxi ride away.