The esteemed Alan Ayckbourn is famous for his observational comedies, turning mundane situations and characters into memorable entertainment.
But Taking Steps, written in 1979, is much more of a farce, with bed-hopping, misunderstandings and frantic exits and entrances more reminiscent of Ray Cooney’s work.
The storyline is interesting: Roland who, on his own admission is a very successful man, is leasing a crumbling – and some say haunted - mansion from cash-struck Leslie Bainbridge, who is eager to sell. Enter Tristam Watson, a bungling solicitor, around whom most of the action eventually takes place. Also in the equation is Roland’s wife, Elizabeth, another unsympathetic character, who never stops banging on about being a dancer; her brother, Mark, who is so boring that he literally sends everyone to sleep, and his neurotic little fiancée Kitty, who left him at the altar.
In this production none of the characters are believable. Only Ross Hatt gets my vote, and my sympathy, as the solicitor who, eyes wide like a rabbit in the headlights, finds himself in the most compromising situations.
The opening night performance didn’t really get going until the second act and the positioning of the actors meant that, at times, the action was blocked for some members of the audience. But the cast is a strong one: David McAlister (Roland), Nick Waring (Mark), Harry Gostelow (Leslie), Catherine Skinner (Kitty) and Natalie Ogle (Elizabeth). And under director Ian Masters’ guidance I have every confidence that Taking Steps will become another jewel in Ayckbourn’s crown.
Taking Steps is at The Mill at Sonning until 23 March. Box office: 0118 969 8000 www.millatsonning.com
For a very merry Christmas you really must go and see The Mill at Sonning’s latest production.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much – and I laugh at every opportunity!
I’ve seen several productions of Ray Cooney’s sequel to his comedy Run for Your Wife but this one really had my sides aching and tears running down my face.
The subject of this hilarity is London cabbie John Smith, who is secretly married to two women. The fun begins, however, when two teenagers begin talking online and arrange to meet. The trouble is, Gavin is John’s son by wife Barbara and Vicki is John’s daughter by wife Mary.
It only takes a genius like father of farce Ray Cooney to concoct the series of events that follow, with John’s lodger Stanley taking the brunt of the scams.
The set is divided into John’s two houses though the cast use the whole stage at various times, so it’s like a military manoeuvre with timing of the essence. And coupled with a complicated plot and some long, intricate and very funny speeches, every actor deserves the greatest applause for the magnificent way they handle everything.
Under the direction of Ron Aldridge, Robin Askwith as John and David Cardy as Stanley have particularly difficult roles to play but their performances are sheer joy. Elizabeth Elvin and Belinda Carroll also deal wonderfully with acting in two scenes at once, while Danny Walters as Gavin and Helen Armes as Vicki are a breath of fresh air.
One of Sonning’s funniest regulars is Patrick Monckton and this time round he has us in stitches as Stanley’s elderly and confused father (he’s confused?). For a change he hardly says a word but that wonderful face of his says everything that needs to be said – and more.
As in every Cooney farce there are several doors – seven in this case plus a flight of stairs – and they are all used to the full as people pop in and out the two houses, hiding or being hidden. It’s a wonderful piece of nonsense and though the script treats computers as fairly ‘new fangled’ it doesn’t detract.
Caught in the Net really does have to be seen to be believed. It’s the best thing you’ll have seen all year!
Caught in the Net is at The Mill at Sonning until 27 January. Box office: 0118 969 8000 www.millatsonning.com
For Simon doesn’t pull any punches when creating his characters and their troubled lives, and in Anthony Valentine’s tightly directed production at The Mill at Sonning his small but strong English cast go all out to play the kind of Americans whose hobby is to visit their analysts.
Like Plaza Suite, California Suite is a series of playlets about the occupants of one particular hotel suite.
There’s a successful screenwriter and his ex-wife warring over who should have custody of their 17-year-old daughter; a mild-mannered businessman who awakes to find an unconscious prostitute in his bed just as his wife arrives; two couples who are lifelong best friends until they take a vacation together and, last but not least, an English actress and her bi-sexual husband, in Los Angeles for the Oscars.
Between them, Susan Skipper, Martyn Stanbridge, Jeffrey Holland and Jo Ross play the lot, apart from Chloe Holmes, making her professional debut as the prostitute, who though never speaks is memorable for her convincing unconscious state all the time she is on stage.
Stanbridge and Holland are particularly strong as all American males, while Stanbridge also does a good job of playing the bi-sexual husband in the final playlet.
Biting wit and very funny moments are interspersed with unleashed emotion and some moving and very sad scenes, while Skipper and Ross banter with their male counterparts in quick fire repartee which would leave Andy Murray standing.
A sophisticated and entertaining evening.
Box Office - 01189 69 8000
Online bookings: http://www.millatsonning.com
New York-based Lucy Bennett’s first ever play is a triumph!
Charming, heart-warming and moving, now that it has opened at The Mill at Sonning, word of mouth should ensure that its world premiere will be an astounding success – and tickets will sell like hot cakes!
A Piece of Cake charts the ups and downs of Penelope Hart, who fulfils a life-long dream to open a cake shop in Dulwich.
Beginning when she gets the keys from estate agent David Fletcher, we share her journey as, with the help of handsome handyman Peter Stanford and dizzy blonde Lizzie Greig, she turns a dilapidated shop into a pretty little cafe.
The magnificent transformation is, of course, due to set designer Terry Parsons with the help of stage hands disguised as workmen who later double up as customers! It’s a clever ploy, and adds to the illusion that everything is real. What’s more, all but one of the characters is likeable.
Under Sally Hughes’ direction they have us all on their side, especially when they find love but are too shy and awkward to show it. And they are all vulnerable, so much so that there were times, on the opening night, when I shed a tear, such as when divorcee Peter thinks he is losing his daughter.
Susie Emmett, as Penelope, is someone I’d like as my best friend. In fact, she is so like one of the loveliest people I know that I kept thinking it was she I was watching. As Peter, Eddie Elks is just the type of man you wish you had to do your jobs, though his dark side is quite disturbing; Janine Leigh is a real laugh as the excitable Lizzie (in one little scene she is trying to coax an old man into the shop and her miming is hilarious - as is the look on the face of the old man!), and Sonning favourite Patrick Monckton, who can bring the house down with just one look, injects his own special brand of humour to the role of the estate agent.
Then there’s the gorgeous James Palmer, but to tell you more would be to give the game away.
A Piece of Cake is definitely a feast of entertainment, and I’d like to go back for second helpings. But if you go don’t be on a diet. The evening’s fun includes real cupcakes for sale!
A Piece of Cake runs At The Mill at Sonning until 23 June. Box office: 0118 969 8000.
Most famous as one of the greatest crime stories ever written, The Big Sleep has been around since 1939, was filmed in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and again in 1978 with Robert Mitchum.
But nothing prepares The Mill at Sonning audiences for its first stage adaptation by noted writer, director and producer Alvin Rakoff and his son John D Rakoff.
From its first, stylised moments as the silhouettes of naked women can be seen posing for a camera while gun shots ring out, you know that this version of Raymond Chandler’s novel is going to be different, very different.
Chandler’s famous private investigator Philip Marlowe may sound just the same as he always does, whether it’s on film or radio – and all credit due to actor Simon Merrells for that – but everything else is innovative and imaginative.
For the thriller, which first appeared in a pulp magazine Black Mask, is set against a backdrop of black and white illustrations, as you would find in a book or magazine of the day, while the colourful characters are played as if they had just jumped out of a comic book.
There is a suggestion of a set, with actors having to mime, for instance, getting into a car and driving it – helped by sound effects like a car door banging (though this is not consistent), and audiences have to use their imagination, but the stark, monotone performing space, designed by the celebrated Eileen Diss, with striking lighting by Matthew Biss, is perfect for the moody melodrama of 1940s gangland America.
The cast in this slick and stylish production, directed by Alvin Rakoff, have to be very versatile. Elliot Harper, for instance plays 10, albeit minor, roles, while Michael Percival clocks up seven and Martyn Stanbridge’s main roles alternate between being a buttoned-up English butler and a jovial LA cop.
The most colourful of characters, especially in bright red shoes and dresses, is portrayed by Anna Doolan as Carmen, the playful and wayward daughter of an ailing millionaire, as well as the flamboyant wife of gangster Eddie Mars, while Samantha Coughlan contrasts between being Carmen’s sexy sister and the bookish but devious Agnes.
The whole production is held together by Simon Merrells as Philip Marlowe, whose staccato delivery is classic and whose wise-cracking adds more than just a touch of humour.
All in all, this novel and quality entertainment should make The Big Sleep a bestseller all over again!
The Big Sleep continues until 26 November. Booking: 0118 969 8000.
They say actors should never work with children or animals, so the cast of The Mill at Sonning’s latest production would have a hard job on their hands - if they weren’t so good themselves.
Charlie, an eight-year-old West Highland terrier, is always going to steal the show in Wife Begins at Forty. He’s a natural, taking his entrances and exits in his stride and causing the heart of many an audience member to melt.
But, as the pet of Linda Harper, the wife of the title, and her well-meaning but boring husband, George, he is just an added bonus in this fast-paced and hilarious romp which even manages to go up a few notches in the second act.
Director Brian Godfrey, who also plays Roger, the Harpers’ two-timing neighbour, has a gift of a cast to work with: As Linda, who is looking for something to spice up her life, Vicki Michelle may no longer be 40 but you’d never know it to see her dressed as Wonder Woman or cavorting with her husband. She’s still as sexy as when she played Yvette in ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Mark Curry has never struck me as boring but, as George, he is utterly convincing. Having said that, he still manages to move us, make us laugh - and make us suffer with him as he recovers from a vasectomy!
Anita Graham as Roger’s rather vague wife, is always good for a laugh; Brian Godfrey hits just the right spot as Roger, and Sebastian Kinder, making his professional debut as the Harpers’ 16-year-old son Leonard, played his part perfectly. Then there is Royce Mills - what can I say? With a look of mischief mixed with pure innocence he utters his lines as if he’s just thought of them (and maybe he has!), but to such effect that he has his audiences (and sometimes his fellow cast members) laughing uncontrollably.
As usual, credit must go to the impeccably designed and authentic set, designed by Tony Eden, complete with falling snow, and writers Arne Sultan and Earl Barret who, having seen Ray C ooney’s Run For Your Wife, collaborated with the king of farce to produce this real rib tickler.
Incidentally, dog lovers need not worry about Charlie (who belongs to Mark Curry) being fed the wrong things - the toasted cheese sandwiches are dog treats!
Wife Begins at Forty continues at The Mill at Sonning until 3 September. Box office: 0118 969 8000
Jeffrey Holland is best known for his comedy performances: from TV credits as Spike in Hi-De-Hi; You Rang M’Lord and Oh, Mr Beeching to, on stage, Dad’s Army, Run for Your Wife, Travels With My Aunt, ’Allo ‘Allo and Goon Again in which he recreated the Peter Sellers characters. Not to mention almost 40 seasons as pantomime dame!
So it is a surprise to see him playing a villain in the world premiere of Roger Mortimer-Smith’s thriller Guilty Secret.
I always admire The Mill for inviting the press along on the first night of any production, and for Jeffrey Holland to be taking on an unfamiliar lead in a world premiere deserves praise indeed, especially as he has such a wordy part in a play which piles bluff upon double bluff and ends up not at all like you’d expect.
Wordy is an understatement. During the first act Holland’s role as George, a cold, ruthless kidnapper, is practically a monologue. No surprise then that he fluffed a couple of lines, but then it was the first night, he was playing out of character, and it was quite a feat!
His performance is chilling, and in stark contrast to his sidekick Lennie, played convincingly by Neil Andrew, whose lack of ability to grasp what is going on provides more than a few laughs. Into the mix comes spoilt heiress Charlotte, whom George kidnaps, hoping for £5m from her business tycoon father. And Katie Beard looks and plays the part perfectly.
The start of the second act belongs to Philip Childs in another convincing performance as a detective – and another monologue, but though the plot is complicated, Anthony Valentine, the director and no mean actor himself, makes sure everything moves along at a cracking pace, culminating in a glorious climax.
Not to be forgotten is Dinah England’s splendid set and Matthew Biss’s lighting. The play is set in February in a lonely farmhouse which comes with loads of atmosphere, appropriate car lights and a view through the window which is so realistic that when the door was opened I could swear I felt the cold air rushing in.
Guilty Secret runs at The Mill at Sonning until 16 July. Box office: 0118 969 8000
The Mill at Sonning’s latest production isn’t for the feint-hearted.
But for those who like to be scared, Framed! is an absolute delight.
I can’t remember the last time I was so deliciously terrified. Even The Woman in Black can’t live up to this thriller.
Director Ian Masters has squeezed every ounce of entertainment out of what is an enthralling tale with so many strands you can’t fail to be amazed.
With a howling wind, flickering lights and… is that a ghost at the window? - there’s atmosphere in abundance at the idyllic but remote cottage in Norfolk where a couple are spending the weekend to get to know one another.
Nick Waring delivers an unnerving performance as Sam, a somewhat distracted lover and a complete contrast to Sally Ann Matthews’ tremulous and needy Judy, still in trauma after an horrendous divorce.
But equal billing must go to the playwright Martin Sterling whose masterful plot is full of surprises right up until the last line.
Framed! continues until 26 February. Booking 0118 969 8000.
Summer may be over, but The Mill at Sonning is still very much in a holiday mood with Holiday Snap, an old-fashioned but uproarious comedy of mistaken identity and misunderstandings.
Written by Jon Pertwee’s brother Michael, and John Chapman, whose first play Dry Rot was staged, not surprisingly, at the Whitehall Theatre, it is the perfect vehicle for the irrepressible Royce Mills as a retired naval officer who is now a bumbling manager for a timeshare company in Portugal.
Armed with someone else’s spectacles and several pink gins, he causes great mayhem as he mixes up two adulterous couples in the sort of frolicsome farce of which he is a master, delivering his lines as if making them up along the way, and adding to the hysteria by corpsing.
As if his huge personality isn’t enough for one production, he is joined on stage by an equally incorrigible comic, Patrick Monkton, as a car salesman, on holiday with his boss’s wife, played with great aplomb by Felicity Duncan.
I wonder how director Ron Aldridge managed to keep Royce and Patrick under control during rehearsals. My guess is, he didn’t, but gave them the opportunity to let their comic genius run riot while still managing to work wonders to produce the sunniest of comedies.
Holiday Snap is at The Mill at Sonning dinner theatre, Oxfordshire, until October 3. Box office: 0118 969 8000.
The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s comic masterpiece about relationships, is a classic.
But while it is undoubtedly a gift for any actor and director, any staging has always been compared to the film version, starring Walter Mattau and Jack Lemmon, or the five-year-long TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as the mismatched flatmates.
At The Mill at Sonning, actor Anthony Valentine has turned his hand to directing a fresh, tight production with Terence Booth and Martyn Stanbridge (looking uncannily like their TV counterparts) making the roles of sloppy sportswriter Oscar and neat, neurotic news writer Felix their own.
From the outset, the privileged audience is drawn into the world of recent divorcee Oscar who, on the surface, is enjoying doing what he wants to do in his eight-room New York apartment, but in reality is desperately lonely. So when his friend Felix’s wife chucks him out, the obvious thing is for him to share his home - with disastrous results.
Though Oscar may be lonely, his lines - and his portrayal by Terence Booth - provide most of the laughs, whereas Martyn Stanbridge really pulls at the heartstrings, despite being agitated and irritating as Felix. It is no wonder that neighbouring sisters - played wonderfully by Susan Skipper and Carla de Wansey as innocent and giggly sixties’ English roses - end up taking him in.
Neil Simon’s uproariously witty script, brought to life so well by this company of actors, is well worth its several Tony awards. Every bit as pertinent today as it was in 1965, isn’t it due another West End revival?
And this is certainly the cast to do it.