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Three Men in a Boat (Susan Elkin reviews)

Three Men in a Boat

Adapted for the Stage by Clive Francis from book by Jerome K Jerome

The Mill at Sonning

Directed by Joe Harmston

 Star rating: 4

Well we all know what happens. Three chaps, inferentially Etonians, set off along the Thames in a small boat with their dog and there are episodic encounters – humorous ones.

Clive Francis’s adaptation sits neatly on The Mill at Sonning’s big stage with Sean Cavanagh’s set providing an oval, green quasi pond on the which the “boat” can be foot paddled. None of it is fussy. There’s a lot of mime – the oars and Montmorency the dog, for example, are left to our imagination. Meanwhile, Tom Lishman’s sound design gives us bird song, watery noises, a thunderstorm and more while Mike Robertson’s lighting provides lots of atmosphere. And each time they reach a new spot on the river (including Sonning – nice touch) there’s a black and white photograph projected on to the back screen. It’s a show laden with wit, charm and deftness of touch.

James Bradshaw as George, Sean Rigby as Harris and George Watkins as K (aka Jerome K Jerome) are all effective actors. Bradshaw and Rigby in particular are very good at stepping briefly into other roles such as a very funny episode in a riverside inn when four different men claim to have landed the trout displayed in the bar. All are played by Rigby,  altering his voice, bearing and position of his striped blazer each time. They banter, josh and are wickedly superior to most other river users. It’s entitlement played for laughs and yet another comedy rooted in social class. And I liked the way Joe Harmston and his cast dug out a few innuendoes and leaned on them,. The songs are fun too. Rigby agrees to sing a “comic song” and makes a glorious mess of confusing two patter songs from HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury. And the three of them sing the Eton Boating Song in harmony.

Enjoyably entertaining as it is, it feels lightweight – but at the very end it changes direction and finds itself a purpose which is what gained it my fourth star. Jerome K Jerome’s novel was published in 1889 but this production shunts it forward 20 years so that we’re in that hedonistic, peaceful “Edwardian summer” when young men who didn’t, apparently, need to work for a living could simply don their striped jackets and go off on a carefree boating trip. But of course that freedom and innocence didn’t last.  The world was hurtling towards 1914 after which nothing would ever be the same again. It meant that we left the theatre in a more sombre mood than I thought we would at the start of the show: bitter sweet nostalgia imaginatively done.



Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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