Both a restaurant and a theatre, The Mill at Sonning, with its beautiful river setting in the countryside near Reading, is currently host to the Busman's Honeymoon, co-written by Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who were friends at Somerville College, Oxford. Sayers went on to write the novel of the same title which was the eleventh and last to feature Lord Peter Wimsey (James Sheldon), an amateur detective and Harriet Vane (Kate Tydman) a crime writer.
the place to be if you want drama with your dinner
The play is a classic from the golden age of detective fiction and the realism, manners, stratified society and methodologies of police investigation stand out as firmly rooted in an era that has long past. It premiered in 1936 at the Comedy Theatre in the West End, where it was a great success and ran for 413 performances. At home in the company of Agatha Christie and Noël Coward, it’s a joy to see so much creativity and imagination devoted to a play of this genre. Director Brian Blessed comments, “This is her masterpiece! A love story with detective interruptions. It is enriched with gorgeous characters that bring delightful humour to the story. And the murder method itself remains the most ingenious ever devised by any crime writer.”
Wimsey and Vane have just purchased the farmhouse in which the play takes place and arrive to spend their honeymoon in its tranquil setting. They turn up late at night and after some confusion obtaining the key, they go straight to bed. In the morning they discover the body of Noakes, the former owner, in the cellar. What was to have been an escape from anything to do with crime now presents an irresistible challenge to solve another murder mystery along the traditional lines of who, how and why; none of which will be revealed here.
Given that Noakes was generally unpopular and somewhat mean, there is no shortage of suspects, including one family member, those employed in the house and people in the village who shed few tears over his passing. No one can be ruled out so Wimsey has the task of eliminating them until only one remains. So here we go.
Helen Blanc is delightfully eccentric, emotional and full of surprises. A possible beneficiary, she reveals more and more as Noake’s niece, spinster of the parish Miss Twitterton; not least in relation to the gardener and general handyman, Frank Crutchley. Christian Ballantyne imbues him with vehemence surrounding the money Noake’s owed him, yet laddish ordinariness as a young garage mechanic who enjoys his pints and games in the local pub, especially after choir practice. The housekeeping is done by Mrs Ruddle. Joanna Brookes is a constant sauce of amusement here as she trundles around the sitting room, duster in hand, chuntering to herself and speaking her mind. She is only moderately kept in order by Bunter, the butler and manservant to the deceased, whom George Tefler plays in classic style, possessing a dignified gait and showing appropriate respect to those whom he serves and subservience to those with higher social status. He also looks down on the likes of Mr Puffet, a part clearly relished by Ian Stuart Robertson, who is as rough-hewn as they come and provides much amusement with the sweeping of the chimney.
Equally contrasting are Superintendent Kirk, whom Noel White depicts as a man of some intelligence, if rather slow methodical logic, and his sidekick, the less gifted Constable Sellon, portrayed by Luke Barton as a man of rural simplicity who attracts sympathy, especially when his errors of judgement throw him into the arena of suspects, despite his position. Every village has a vicar and Paggleham is blessed with the Reverend Simon Goodacre, who assumes a central role in welcoming the new parishioners, dealing with the funeral and consoling those in grief. Those practicalities aside, Duncan Wilkins makes him quite other-worldly and amusing with a degree of eccentricity that verges on the wacky. Could he possibly have had a grudge against Noakes? Unlikely. This leaves the rather odd character of Mr MacBride, who turns up to sort out some financial claims. Looking and sounding like a very dodgy East End wheeler-dealer merchant who might send the boys in at any time, Chris Porter successfully cuts a figure completely at odds with anything rural. All of these make honeymoon heaven less achievable but Sheldon and Tydman show the love they have for each other in some swooning opportunities while also fathoming out the who-dunnit.
The saga unfolds in a delightful period room designed by Michael Holt and appropriately lit by Matthew Bass with costumes of the era by Natalie Titchener. I’m sure Kate Tydman will want to take her stunning last dress home with her.
Brian Blessed is absolutely right about the ingenuity of the means of Noake’s death which is demonstrated at the end and is a source of wonderment. It’s an accomplished piece of directing on his part, along with artistic director Sally Hughes, and a significant contribution to preserving this often-neglected and perhaps nowadays unfashionable period of theatre history. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea and perhaps a little tedious in places with diversionary scenes that seem to serve little purpose, but this is the place to be if you want drama with your dinner.