In the middle of the countryside lies an unexpected theatre producing Agatha Christie's An Unexpected Guest. Daniel Perks visits The Mill At Sonning, the Most Welcoming Theatre in the UK, to soak up its dinner-theatre atmosphere:

In the Reading countryside sits a mill, which is also a theatre. Parts of the building date back to the eighteenth century, currently undergoing refurbishment under the watchful eye of Artistic Director Sally Hughes. But the history of The Mill at Sonning goes as far back as 1086 and the Domesday Book, steeped as it is in a rich British history – mention of the area is found in the English Civil War (Cromwell had his headquarters in London; King Charles in Oxford, and the troops met in the middle i.e. Reading). The mill itself hasn’t functioned in its originally intended capacity since 1969 but has instead been a theatrical producing house for the last 36 years.

The Mill At Sonning

And yet, many theatregoers won’t have heard of this regional gem, even though it has won the Most Welcoming Theatre Award for the last two years in a row. Such an inviting atmosphere is immediately obvious when you walk through the doors – their dinner theatre package is one not to miss. Because instead of buying a ticket to a production, you buy into the whole experience. An evening spent in a beautifully renovated mill, enjoying a two-course meal and some wholesome theatrical entertainment, in the middle of the English countryside, is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of London’s West End. And a welcome change it is too.

The Mill At Sonning

The current offering, playing until 28 July 2018, is a revival of Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, a perfectly in-line choice for the persona of this theatre. After sampling a buffet of honey-glazed gammon, a salmon niçoise salad, steak & ale pie and a vegetarian moussaka, followed by a sumptuously sticky chocolate brownie, two hours of classic Christie whodunnit is the perfect way to cap off a stereotypically middle-class British evening. Directed by Brian Blessed and starring both Diane Keen & his daughter, Rosalind Blessed, The Unexpected Guest is a far cry from the contemporary, experimental work that you may see in the Yard Theatre, or the queer work so often championed in the King’s Head Theatre. But it does compare in quality and execution to the likes of the Park Theatre, or Jermyn Street Theatre, both of which are taking the London Off West End scene by storm.

Unexpected Guest The Mill At Sonning

If this article were a review of The Unexpected Guest, it would read as a three-star set of twee pleasantries. Dinah England’s set design and Natalie Titchener’s costumes are full of intricate detail, all designed and manufactured on The Mill at Sonning’s premises – just another thing that adds to the charm of this place. Not only is the functioning water wheel able to provide all of the electrical power required to run this building (theatre, restaurant and all), it fits snugly in with its ethos of green and sustainable. Self-sufficiency even extends to the business model of the venue – with no sponsors, grants or Arts Council funding, The Mill at Sonning relies entirely on box office takings, events bookings and a membership scheme (The Mill Angels).

But before I fly off into a quintessentially British flight of fancy into the rich history and culture of this theatre, back to the show at hand. A mark of the community spirit that seems to permeate throughout the venue staff and creatives is this production’s cast listing, half of whom are returning performers. Maybe it’s the name of Brian Blessed that draws them in, his booming voice a call to return time and time again. Blessed is a staunch supporter of the venue, with The Unexpected Guest his third Agatha Christie production in the theatre – this double act is obviously a local crowd-pleaser.

Unexpected Guest The Mill At Sonning

And The Unexpected Guest is more of the same – Agatha Christie’s unique brand of cheerful murder and whodunnit intrigue. While this particular production requires more in its realisation to capitalise on Christie’s gift of moreish mystery, it’s a well-acted show that is unlikely to offend. Keen gives a majestic matriarchal performance, with rich subtext bubbling through the restrained pauses in her dialogue. On the other end of the spectrum, but no less impressive, is Luke Barton and his sudden sinister switches as the autistic younger brother. Barton’s mannerisms and physicality makes him a scene stealer, a balance of child-hearted glee and darker complexity.

Unexpected Guest The Mill At sonning

Patrick Myles, Luke Barton & Kate Tydman

In many ways The Unexpected Guest encapsulates The Mill at Sonning’s brand. It’s full of love and heart, paying homage to the past rather than pushing boundaries for the future. Not every theatre can produce ground-breaking work – many are rightly dedicated to celebrating the rich culture of our past, one that inevitably informs our present. For that, for its welcoming atmosphere and for its slice of unapologetically British life, this venue deserves its plaudits.

 

 

The Unexpected Guest plays at The Mill At Sonning until 28 July 2018. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.