Towards Zero

Reviewer's Rating

“What’s your name, constable?” asked the irascible Inspector Barlow. “Fancy … er, William Smith, sir.” “You think Leeds is centre of t’world, laddie, don’t you?”

This exchange, from the very first episode of Z Cars in 1962, featured a fresh-faced and clean-shaven Brian Blessed, playing P.C. “Fancy” Smith. The nickname was bestowed because he fancied himself, and now the larger-than-life (and no longer clean-shaven) actor fancies himself as a director. One must hand it to him, he has had a very good crack at it!

The Mill at Sonning was grinding wheat while Roundheads and Cavaliers were thrashing it out nearby during the Civil War, but in recent times it fell into disuse until it underwent a sensitive restoration and enlargement, and now it features a restaurant, a waterside bar (with a still-turning waterwheel) and a theatre. Unusually, it offers a two-in-one package of dinner (or lunch, for matinées) and a show. You can’t have one without the other. But you wouldn’t want to separate them. Along with the lovely rural setting (but just ten minutes by taxi from Reading station), they make for a wonderful experience. Yesterday I tucked into a fantastic lunch, strolled around the grounds afterwards, watching dragonflies hovering over the mill pond, and then took my comfortable place in the small auditorium, where a semicircle of seats rises around a floor-level stage.

What about the play itself? The poster for it looks rather like the one for An Inspector Calls, which enjoyed a successful revival last year. But unlike J.B. Priestley’s rather earnest message of social reform, Agatha Christie wanted no more than to write a cracking whodunnit, set in a traditional English country house with a variety of stock characters, any one of whom could have committed the murder that spoils their holiday. In this instance, it is the elderly aristocratic châtelaine who is bumped off, with a rather unusual murder weapon.

Ms. Christie’s original novel was adapted for the stage by Gerald Verner, himself a dab hand at writing potboilers, including numerous Sexton Blake thrillers. The result is sheer entertainment, put on by an excellent cast. After all, everyone loves a good murder story, and the audience here certainly did. It is set in the 1950s, and I liked the careful recreation of that period in the costumes and furniture. I particularly liked the shipping forecast on the wireless, which said Finisterre and not Fitzroy, and the Paul Temple Mystery on the Light Programme. But this was actually coming from a transistor radio. I’m old enough to remember the fifties, and I don’t think we had them in those days.

This is not demanding theatre. Challenging, life-changing, harrowing it is not. But as an essential ingredient of a great day, or evening, out, far (but not too far) from the madding crowd, this show comes highly recommended!