DramaReviewSouth East

Three Men in a Boat – The Mill at Sonning,

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Clive Francis, based on the book by Jerome K. Jerome

Director: Joe Harmston

Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat is ostensibly about a boating holiday up the Thames, but its genteel wit comes from the interplay between the protagonists – the author, J, and his friends George and Harris (to say nothing of the dog) – and their general lack of competence. As a template, one could argue that it’s the forerunner of many a TV travelogue, where any details about the land being explored play second fiddle to the personality of the tourist.

But what makes the original novel so charming is largely due to the author’s observations and opinions and less so the episodic incidents the three men encounter. That sets a challenge for dramatising the novel for the stage.

Adapter Clive Francis leans into the book’s series of anecdotes, creating a play that similarly resembles a series of skits rather than one with a stronger sense of narrative. The key to unlocking the structure is in the strength of the cast and the trio of actors. George Watkins is a suitably waspish J, while Sean Rigby’s Harris embodies the sense of a man who has the confidence to burst into song at any moment without worrying about whether he can remember the words. Completing the trio, James Bradshaw is a genially bookish fellow. The men’s three distinct personalities complement each other well, fitting neatly into Jerome’s original characters and Francis’s interpretation of them.

Perhaps the bigger star, though, is Sean Cavanagh’s ingenious set design. Initially looking like a wide bookcase in J’s London flat, the set opens out to represent an idyllic Thameside riverbank, with the base of the bookcase moving out to become the boat. As the actors propel the craft around the stage (using their feet through the boat’s hollow base, Flintstones-style, there is a sense that the set is perfectly in tune with the humorous tone of the work.

Yet it is in the humour where this production of Three Men in a Boat often finds itself falling short. The frequent skits that make up the men’s journey up the Thames are amusing rather than hilarious. While they’re in progress, there’s a sense of increasing absurdity from the cast (who also play the various characters they meet on their travels), but so many scenes come to an abrupt end, the punchline to which they have been building either flubbed or missing altogether.

Another misstep comes in the finale. Francis’s adaptation moves the action slightly from Jerome’s late 19th-century setting to 1914. The conclusion looks forward from the idyllic holiday messing about in boats to a vision of what is to come. But there is nothing leading up to that to justify the pay-off, making the play’s final moments seem disconnected and out of place.

Still, that does not totally negate the amusement that is to be had in the moments before. This work has a place in locals’ hearts, especially with the village of Sonning featured in both the novel and the play as one of the stops in the men’s journey up the Thames. For all its faults, Three Men in a Boat will provide local audiences with a new spin on a 135-year-old view of their local river.

Continues until 13 July 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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