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Review of Three Men in a Boat - staged in the perfect setting at The Mill at Sonning

A  mock boat on a stage with three men in blazers and boating straw hats
The Three Men - George Watkins, James Bradshaw, Sean Rigby. Photo credit Andreas Lambis

A trip to the Mill at Sonning is always a bit of a treat. The setting is beautiful and the concept 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 such 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 and tea or coffee.

This couldn't be a more perfect location for the staging of Three Men in Boat. When in 1889 Jerome K Jerome took his fictionalised friends up the Thames in a rowing boat - describing Sonning as being “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river…more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar” - his book was an instant success. Within a year river boating licences had doubled; Jerome had created a lifestyle craze. And the book has never been out of print since.

In this adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome's classic "Three Men in a Boat," director Joe Harmston transports the audience to a time just before the First World War, bringing fresh relevance to this beloved tale of camaraderie and adventure. By choosing to set the play in the Edwardian era, Harmston adds a poignant layer of historical context that enriches the narrative, allowing the audience to reflect on the impending changes that the characters are blissfully unaware of.

The cast delivers robust performances, each actor embodying their character with charm and authenticity. James Bradshaw, as George, brings a delightful mix of pragmatism and humor. His portrayal captures the essence of a man who is both grounded and dreamily escapist. Sean Rigby, playing Harris, is a perfect foil, injecting a sense of dry wit and occasional exasperation that keeps the audience laughing. George Watkins, as Jerome K. Jerome, is the linchpin of the trio, his performance imbued with a sense of nostalgia and wonder that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the original book. The concept of 'work' is alluded to, but it's very unclear why they are so exhausted by it, needing this friends break on the river.

The production's set design is another highlight, ingeniously crafted to evoke the tranquility and beauty of the Thames. The use of simple props and clever lighting creates an immersive experience, transporting the audience from bustling London streets to the serene riverbanks. This minimalistic approach not only emphasizes the journey itself but also the camaraderie and simplicity of the adventures shared by the three friends. The audience gave a little cheer as the three arrived in Sonning on their trip down the Thames. ,

Clive Francis' adaptation stays true to the original text while injecting modern sensibilities that make the humor and themes accessible to contemporary audiences. The dialogue is sharp and witty on the whole, capturing the playful banter that defines the characters' relationships. The scene based in a pub about who caught the trout and it's weight didn't seem to reach a punchline though, and could do with sharpening in its delivery.

One of the most impressive aspects of this production is its ability to balance humour with moments of genuine reflection. The comedic timing is impeccable, with the actors delivering their lines with the perfect blend of spontaneity and precision. We don't really get any sense of the world chaos about to come until the final poignant scene.

The director’s choice to cast younger actors for the roles of George, Harris, and Jerome adds a layer of vitality and urgency to their quest for adventure. They are living their lives, rather than reflecting upon them.

In conclusion, this production of "Three Men in a Boat" is a fun show blending humor, historical context, and heartfelt performances to create an unforgettable theatrical experience. It is a testament to the enduring appeal of Jerome K. Jerome's work and its ability to resonate with audiences over a century later. Whether you are a longtime fan of the book or new to the story, this adaptation offers a fresh perspective that is both entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking.

The Mill at Sonning Theatre

Sonning Eye



When: now until - 13 July

Evening show at 8.15pm, 2-course dinner served from 6.15pm

Matinee at 2.15pm, 2-course lunch served from 12.15pm



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