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Review - Three Men in a Boat

The Mill at Sonning Theatre

Playing until 13 July 2024

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

Review {AD-PR Gifted}

For many of us, a trip to the theatre offers up a healthy dose of escapism. As escapism goes, no one could argue against the calming properties of a leisurely boat trip along the Thames with a hamper stocked with bread, jam, and champagne (unless, perhaps, you’re overly susceptible to motion sickness). It’s this quintessentially British boat trip that forms the basis for the comedy Three Men In A Boat, based on Jerome K. Jerome’s classic Victorian memoir, which is currently playing at The Mill at Sonning.


The play is centred around Jerome (George Watkins), a fictionalised version of the author himself, and his closest Moët-sipping chums Harris (Sean Rigby) and George (James Bradshaw) as they decide to venture on a journey down the Thames for some respite from the mundane everyday activities.


There’s an easy warmth to the humour, with wonderful chemistry among the cast. Jerome is the perfect embodiment of the famous “British stiff upper lip”, Harris offers up plenty of dry wit, and George’s bumbling ineptitude rounds out the trio nicely.


In addition to the central characters, the actors also parade their multi-rolling talents by portraying all of the colourful characters they encounter on their trip — as well as miming the presence of Jerome’s loyal dog Montmorency through gentle pats and imitated barks.


Three Men In A Boat stays faithful to its source material in that it’s a loose plot primarily made up of individual vignettes and asides rather than a consistent linear narrative, with the trio narrating much of the action throughout.


The play relies on classic British wit, meaning some of the jokes aren’t hugely fresh, but they’re delivered with enough breezy charm from the actors to land comfortably most of the time. The funniest moments come from mix-ups and misunderstandings, but some of the longer skits become a tad repetitive — namely, one about identifying who's caught a comically large fish — with the joke wearing thin by the end.


There were a few bits of audience participation that enhanced the classic British feel of the comedy, and even a few singalongs to songs including Charles Coborn’s “Two Lovely Black Eyes”.


Adding to Three Men In A Boat’s charm is Sean Cavanagh’s delightfully evocative set, which originally appears as a bookcase before opening out to reveal the boat and a part-painted, part-projected backdrop that creates a suitably old school picture of the English riverside. This is accompanied by a hoard of delightfully silly props that add to the comedy — think self-wheeling hampers and a rather unfortunate dead dog.


It’s a show that clearly knows its target audience — I spotted several patrons in the audience wearing matching striped blazers and straw boater hats — and this quaint riverside theatre is the perfect location for it, with the play namechecking Sonning as the trio of British gents pass through the village on their journey.


The original novel was published in 1889, but director Joe Harmston has shifted this production forwards by 20 years to evoke the peaceful hedonism that preceded World War One. It’s a clever idea that adds extra poignancy to the trio’s otherwise frivolous adventures, but it’s hammered home in the final scene in a way that feels jarring and out of place in the context of the rest of the light-hearted show.


Fans of the book will certainly enjoy this joyful adaptation which captures the spirit of the source material nicely, but Three Men In A Boat might not be fresh enough to win over a new legion of comedy lovers.



Director - Joe Harmston

Set Designer - Sean Cavanagh

Costume Designer - Natalie Titchener

Lighting Designer - Mike Robertson

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