NERVOUSLY, theatre is shuddering back into life again after a torrid time under lockdowns. It’s a welcome re-emergence, although the scars of lockdown remain deep
Nowhere is this more evident than at The Mill at Sonning in Berkshire, a marvellous venue besides the Thames where, as part of their drama package, the audience are wined and dined before sitting down to enjoy their theatrical fare. It’s an appetising double act – a current culinary choice including a scrummy beef (soaked in red wine) pie, tender chicken thighs and salmon, followed by a modern version of Ray Cooney’s Comedy, Two Into One.
Although The Mill, whose managing director is Sally Hughes, has lost none of its aesthetics – beautiful setting and expansive ground floor bar – it hasn’t shaken off what has gone before. Masks are encouraged, surfaces are constantly wiped down and the audience is ushered in row by row (strangely, not after the interval). Understandable, but it feeds through to the audience. Cautiousness reigns.
Thankfully, the cast rises above the nervousness to deliver one of Cooney’s best farces with uplifting panache and a joie d’vivre. At the Westminster Hotel, doors slam with regularity as Richard Willey (a Tory minister at the Home Office, played with verve by Mark Curry) and his wife Pamela (a delightful Carol Royle) plan adulterous afternoons independent of each other.
In Richard’s sights is Jennifer Bristow (Daisy Steere), a glamorous apparatchik at Number 10. Pamela’s attentions are drawn to a nervous George Pigden (a marvellous Steven Pinder), a civil servant who still lives with his mother and who fidgets throughout and has a remarkable ability to get confused. All these shenanigans are going on as the Government is debating a Vice Bill – a piece of legislation that Labour MP Lily Chatterton (Felicity Duncan) has a keen interest in.
Of course, it’s Cooney, so nothing goes according to plan as identities are confused and lies are heaped upon lies. Knitting all this together is an austere hotel manager (Harry Gostelow), an inquisitive Lily and delightfully camp waiter Arwel (Delme Thomas) whose command of the Welsh language is impressive. They never quite work out what is going on (or never quite goes on) in the two rooms on the sixth floor adjacent to each other. Arwel, however, is astute enough to mine a fortune from Richard and George to keep shtum and keep his mum in woolly socks for the rest of her life (and beyond).
It’s all high octane farce. Slapstick in places, but it never ceases to amuse. Richard’s heart daubed boxer shorts are a revelation as is Pamela’s racy negligee. Indeed, none of the cast (even Connor Hughes, playing Jennifer’s husband Edward) are frightened to reveal a little bit of flesh. Flag waving for the beauty of finely preserved middle age bodies.
Directed by Ron Aldridge, Two Into One – interlaced with mentions of Boris, Carrie and Priti Patel – is fun and testimony to the quality and longevity of Cooney’s writing. Yes, it all gets rather confusing, but there’s plenty of fun to keep the audience entertained. And the stage design (well done Douglas Heap) is quite brilliant although the length of beds that the various characters lie on in anticipation of a little bit of philandering are more hobbit than adult like. A shout out too to Olivia Forrest who plays hotel receptionist Josie. Two Into One marks her theatrical debut.
Curry made a heartfelt plea after the curtain call to spread the word – the play runs into October. With the auditorium barely a third full, Two Into One deserves to be playing to much bigger audiences. George Clooney’s generosity notwithstanding (a local resident and big supporter of The Mill), it’s simple. Use it, enjoy it or lose it. Please pay it a visit (it offers more besides theatre).
A final word. There is a special gala night production of Two Into One on September 11. It will recognise the support that Cooney (as opposed to Clooney) has given The Mill over the years and especially during lockdowns. It will also mark the auditorium’s naming as The Ray Cooney Auditorium. Further details at: millatsonning.com.
A fine way to reconnect with a fine theatre (and may I suggest a stay over at the nearby Bull Inn afterwards). Perfect. Enjoyment personified.