Evening shows from Tue – Sat.
Thursday matinees every week
(excl. 31 Aug & 7 Sept).
Saturday matinees every week.
Sunday matinees 16, 23 & 30 July and 3 Sept.
After the huge success of The Hollow last year The Mill is delighted to welcome back National Treasure and giant of the theatre - the indomitable BRIAN BLESSED. Who better to direct what is arguably Agatha Christie’s most enthralling and entertaining thriller.
An evening complete with intrigue, lies, murder and mystery!
Photography: Craig Sugden
“An idyllic supper-theatre venue...Spider’s Web is terrific fun”The Times
“There’s always a laugh or surprise...Blessed has chosen his cast well”Henley Standard
“Joanna Brookes was outstanding...brilliant comedic timing”Maidenhead Advertiser
“Spider’s Web contains all the elements of Christie’s typical ‘whodunnit’ – red herrings, lies, deception and, of course, a dead body”Reading Chronicle
“This is a delight and a triumph – British theatre at its very best. Add in that it is being directed by national treasure Brian Blessed and you have a winning formula”Bracknell News
“Wicked humour...a highly entertaining evening”The Stage
This minor 1954 Agatha Christie play has glamorous origins: it was written for the film star Margaret Lockwood, who wanted a change from the femme fatale roles for which she had become famous on screen. Four years later, in a production in Nottingham, a young Brian Blessed made his professional debut in the humble position of “assistant stage manager and small parts”.
Now, at this idyllic supper-theatre venue, the ebullient actor returns to the piece, this time as director. As any amateur sleuth could guess, Christie’s web of suspense is looking a tad tatty and decidedly dusty, and Blessed hardly spins it with arachnid subtlety. But it’s terrific fun.
Lockwood was keen to display her talent for comedy, and Christie accordingly gave her a hybrid of farce and thriller. Its leading lady, the resourceful Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, is an effortlessly dazzling hostess, fond of telling tall stories for pure devilment, and here she is played by Melanie Gutteridge with a lovely balance of wit, wholesome sexiness and sparkle.
The daffy, convoluted plot unravels in a grand country house, where Clarissa lives with her husband, a Foreign Office diplomat, and her stepdaughter, Pippa. Pippa’s real mummy, Miranda, has a dark past — and when Miranda’s spivvy new squeeze starts lurking around, it spells trouble. Particularly for him, as it turns out — he has barely slunk in before he is found bludgeoned to death. Who could be the murderer? Is it plucky schoolgirl Pippa, who dreads her errant mama coming back to claim her? Miss Peake, the hearty gardener, spotted digging a suspiciously deep trench in the flowerbeds? Surely not Elgin, the creepy butler?
Although the writing is as creaky as the suit of armour that stands guard over Dinah England’s wood-panelled set, the cast are a riot — Joanna Brookes’s mysterious Miss Peake is a particular comic treasure — and there’s some deliciously grotesque business with the corpse that borders on the Ortonesque. It’s a little overlong, and of course it’s eminently disposable. Yet this supremely silly yarn makes beguiling entertainment for a summer’s evening, and it’s carried off with cheerful, cheeky aplomb.
Henley Standard – Mike Rowbottom
Thunder, lightning, a crazy but strangely relevant sound track, jokes: yes, Brian Blessed is back at The Mill At Sonning with another Agatha Christie.
When the veteran actor and explorer came to the Mill a year ago to direct The Hollow he was learning the craft to a certain extent. Spider’s Web shows he’s now got a firm grasp of it.
Spider’s Web is described as a comedy-drama but we should add Murder-mystery and farce into the mix because it manages to be all three and Blessed’s surefooted direction makes sure it sustains those formats.
It’s a long play but it never flags, there’s always a plot development, a laugh, or a surprise to keep us interested and Blessed has chosen his cast well.
Melanie Gutteridge as Clarissa Hailsham Brown drives it on with a central performance which is witty, charming and warm. She sets out to disguise a murder to protect her stepdaughter and that leads to both farce and murder-mystery, often at the same time.
It’s quite a convoluted plot even for Christie but it all hangs together without too much telling and a lot of showing. Farce and crime drama rely upon deceit and being found out so Christie is able to tap that font twice over which makes for an entertaining mix.
And of course farce and murder-mystery rely heavily upon a variety of doors, windows, cupboards and secret entrances which adds to the fun and energy of this piece.
Dinah England’s gothic set underlines the mixture of threat and humour.
Inevitably an inspector arrives to sort it out and Noel White returns as the Christie sleuth of choice for Blsssed. It’s a good choice: he has energy and authority and plays a neat good cop-bad cop routine with a clown of a constable played by Alexander Neil who also doubles as the murder victim.
What sets this apart is the knowing irony of it. When Blessed directed The Hollow he was still playing around with ideas but now he’s sifted out what works including a funny soundtrack featuring The Laughing Policeman and the Dick Barton Theme.
Add in a couple of cracks of thunder and lightning flashes at the beginning, the signal of foreboding in the middle of the last century, but now a knowing joke, and we know from the start that we shouldn’t take this too seriously.
While Gutteridge underpins the show with her magnetic performance George Telfer plays a strong upstanding authority figure in whom we trust; and watch out for what in former decades would have been a matinee idol in the making: Luke Barton playing Jeremy Warrender. George is funny and compelling.
The excellent ITV remakes of the Marple series and Poirot have shown what can be done with what might once have been deemed straight drama without too much characterisation. Brian Blessed now has a grip on the idea which may take it further still.
Maidenhead Advertise – Louise Herrington
Clarissa is a bored second wife of Henry Hailsham-Brown, a diplomat living in the country, and to while away her time, likes to make up ‘what if’ stories.
One of her stories was about how she would react to finding a dead body in her drawing room and what she would do.
Never did she imagine that the ‘what if’ would become a reality.
Her vivid imagination runs riot when she asks her house guests to help get rid of the body before her husband gets home with a top secret dignitary.
However, the police turn up to investigate the situation – how did they know there had been a murder?
This was my first forray into Agatha Christie, having never read any of the novels or seen any plays. I am maybe one of the few reviewers that has never seen The Mousetrap.
My expectation was a hardcore thriller, but I was quite wrong.
This was much more of a parody of the detective thriller, some good comedy played out with more laughs than thrills.
Initially I thought they were internal jokes within the actors that the director put in, but no, this was just as written.
Heavy RP accents did make it a little difficult on the ears, but I guess this was all part of the parody.
Certain aspects received loud chortles from the audience rather than stifled twitters.
Some of the scene establishment took time and was a bit laboured, but congratulations to the prop mistress to make sure the pack of cards was set up so the patience game fitted the script.
Attention to detail not lost, I now know how useful the 1953 edition of ‘Who’s Who’ can be.
Joanna Brookes was the outstanding performance for me as Mildred Peake.
Brilliant comedy timing, but you knew there was something more going on with her than just being the jolly hockey sticks gardener.
Noel White as the Inspector seemed to be on the edge of the giggles a few times in the play, more often than not coming off the lines of Melanie Gutteridge as Clarissa.
My only criticism is that sometimes there was too much small business going on that did not add to the plot or scene and they became a little distracting.
Agatha Christie's Spider's Web, now playing at The Mill at Sonning, is unusual in that it reveals the Queen of Crime's undoubted talent for comedy.
It contains all the elements of her typical ‘whodunnit’ - the country house drawing room, posh cut-glass accents, red herrings, lies, deception and, of course, a dead body - but blatant, laugh-out-loud humour too.
And with expert use of pace, timing and body language, director Brian Blessed's outstanding cast drew out every nuance of mirth. A concealed doorway into a hidden room, a secret drawer plus a knight standing sentry in a revolving niche all added to the comic potential of this very entertaining play.
Diplomat's wife Clarissa, a playful lady with a penchant for making up tall stories for fun, wonders what she would do if she found a dead body in her drawing room. When the inevitable happens, she enlists the (unwilling) help of her three guests to dispose of the body. Then, when a police inspector turns up out of the blue following an anonymous tip off, she invents a tangled web of conflicting tales, enough even to put herself in frame for the murder. Melanie Gutteridge is very convincing as the vivacious and animated Clarissa.
An array of characters, seemingly with stories to hide, keep Noel White's increasingly baffled Inspector Lord and his wonderful eye-rolling uniformed sidekick Constable Jones (Alexander Neal) - guessing. Why did butler Elgin (Tim Faulkner) forge references to get his job and did he and his wife actually go to the pictures on the night of the murder? Why is gardener Mrs Peake, a hale, hearty and backslapping Joanna Brookes, so interested in the antique desk? Are Clarissa's house guests just that or partners-in-crime too? Good performances from George Telfer as her charming and honourable godfather Sir Rowland Delahaye, Eric Carte, an anxious Hugo Birch and Luke Barton as public school-educated Jeremy Warrender.
This was actor Brian Blessed's second and (in this reviewer's opinion) far superior directing foray into the Christie canon at the Mill. His use of the Dick Tracy theme in both now begs the question: is that a motif for future forays? If they are as good as this, let's hope so.
The Stage – Paul Vale
For Spider's Web, author Agatha Christie weaves a rather unexpected thread of comedy through one of her traditional murder mysteries. Originally created as a vehicle for the film actor Margaret Lockwood, a later revival at the old Nottingham Playhouse was the first proper acting job for Brian Blessed.
Here, Blessed returns to the Mill to direct Christie following his success last year with The Hollow. The veteran performer clearly has an affinity with the author's dramatic style and while some of the comedy may be a little dated, Blessed's surprisingly light touch uses physical and comedic punchlines well, making for a highly entertaining evening. There is humour too in Dinah England's sombre walnut panelled set, which features a parquet floor laid out like a spider’s web and a rather majestic suit of armour.
The director is also blessed with an astute leading lady in Melanie Gutteridge. As Clarissa, Gutteridge is playful but also bold and a fiercely protective stepmother. Her white lies may lay the foundation for the plot but Gutteridge plays Clarissa with absolute integrity throughout. Anything less and we would have no sympathy for her.
Joanna Brookes as Peake and Eric Carte as Birch are excellent value as familiar Christie stereotypes that beef up the comedy while Luke Barton's charming turn as feckless rich-kid Warrender provides the appropriate twist in the tale. Spider's Web may not be Christies most successful stage play but Blessed has revived it with pace, precision and occasion touches of eccentricity that serve the text extremely well.
Newbury Weekly – Derek Ansell
You might think that Spider’s Web was written for director Brian Blessed – a comedy thriller with plenty of scope for additional jokes and put-ons.
In actual fact, it was written for movie star Margaret Lockwood, who requested from Agatha Christie a play suitable for her first appearance in the West End, with a part for her friend Wilfred Hyde-White and her young daughter Julia. Cynics might suspect that Lockwood thought Christie owed her a favour or two…
As it went, Hyde-White turned it down, but Lockwood had a big success as Clarissa. Four years after the 1954 London premiere, a very young Brian Blessed, in his first job as an ASM, was seeking props for a production at the respected Nottingham Playhouse and was being helped by the author herself.
In 2017, BB was not going to miss an opportunity to enhance the 50s comedy thriller in his own style. His voice was heard over the sound system before act I, scene 1, reciting rhymes about bogeymen and such during the performance and even signing off after the final curtain call, asking in his best Alfred Hitchcock- style voice not to reveal the ending as “we’ve only got one”.
The plot was cobbled together from four earlier Christie pieces, telling the tale of Clarissa and her Foreign Office husband Sir Henry, played by Nick Barclay, who rent a country house at a fraction of the usual cost from criminals, intent on placing someone named Brown in the house.
They have to settle for Hailsham-Brown – Henry and Clarissa’s name – but when she discovers a body in the living room, everything starts to get very complicated – as it does with Christie plays. No doubt aided and abetted by their director, most of the cast began to ham it up merrily.
Joanna Brookes, as Mildred the eccentric gardener, is so full of expansive gestures and booming voice that at first I thought she might be BB in drag. Eric Carte, Tim Faulkner and Luke Barton all latched on to bits of comedy business in the course of gradually unmasking the murderer.
Esme Seber was convincing in the Julia Lockwood role, as the daughter of the house, and Alexander Neal had a fine old time as Constable Jones… or was it Pc Plod? Three central characters played it straight and this helped make the play work… sort of.
Melanie Gutteridge gave a nicely- paced performance as Clarissa, matched by George Telfer – very believable as Uncle Roily, as was Noel White’s police inspector and everything was – amazingly – properly resolved at the end.
And sitting on the end of the back row of the stalls, a certain Mr Blessed looked quite content.
Bracknell News – Paul Thomas
THE Mill at Sonning is adept at providing the very best in classic stagings from our most famous playwrights, but Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web is right up there as one of the best nights out you can have, writes Paul Thomas.
This comic thriller’s main driving force is fun and has a sophisticated wit that underpins Christie’s ability to make murder most enjoyable.
Add in that it is being directed by national treasure Brian Blessed and you have a winning formula.
Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, wife of a diplomat, is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room she finds live drama much harder to cope with. Desperate to dispose of the body before her husband arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. Hilarity ensues when they are interrupted by the arrival of wry detective, Inspector Lord.
This this a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie delivers a unique blend of suspense and humour. There is tension and laughter in equal parts in an intricate plot of murder, police, drug addicts, invisible ink, hidden doorways and secret drawers.
There are no spoiler alerts in this review….that would be too difficult given the twists and turns in this complex web of merry-go-round murder.
Blessed weaves a wonderful reminiscence of the 50s when this play was first brought to the stage and Blessed met Christie.
Melanie Gutteridge as Clarissa, the hostess with an imagination, holds the plot together well, as she surrounds herself with those who are brought into the deceit.
Noel White as Inspector Lord puts in a typical Christie-esque performance with all the trimmings, while Clarissa’s three cohorts Sir Rowland Delahaye (George Telfer), Hugo Birch (Eric Carte) and Jeremy Warrender (Luke Barton) are spot on as the supposed sidekicks with far more up their sleeves than once thought.
You have, of course the dodgy butler Elgin (Tim Faulkner) with Alexander Neal playing both the murdered blackmailer Oliver Costello and the reliable copper Constable Jones it is left to schoolgirl Pippa Hailsham-Brown (Esme Seber) to both drive and twist the plot with her neurosis and cheap book of spells.
However, for my money Joanna Brookes as the mysterious gardener Mildred Peake was magnificent and really deserves the plaudits…eccentric in the Margaret Rutherford style, gung-ho and jolly hockey sticks…you just don’t get them like that any more.
Nostalgic, witty, funny, and entertaining, this is a delight and a triumph - British theatre at its very best.
And with the two-course meal option before the show as you sit beside the Thames first for supper, then in a delightful in-the-round 215-seater theatre in this glorious riverside village, what could be a better summer sizzler?