BWW Review: TOWARDS ZERO, The Mill At Sonning
It's the late 1950s and, like every year, family and friends gather at Lady Tressilian's summer house in Cornwall. Tragedy hits and a murder is committed in Christie's deliciously dramatic fashion. Brian Blessed therefore concludes his Agatha Christie quartet at The Mill at Sonning with Towards Zero, the author's last installment of her Superintendent Battle series and what's regarded as one of her finest stories.
Adapted for the stage by Christie with the aid of Gerald Verner in 1956, this production by Blessed's is straightforward and faithful to her wishes. The half-moon stage of The Mill envelops the unrelenting action offered with punctual pace by the director. He assembles a strong company that sees Hildegard Neil at the helm as Lady Tressilian, who commands the scene, imposing in her role as the matriarch and resolute in her personal opinions of others. The female cast definitely takes the lead with Bethan Nash and Kate Tydman's compelling deliveries as Kay and Audrey Strange, respectively.
The women's status as Neville's current and ex wife brings intrigue to the plot and animate the mystery. While Tydman elegantly breezes through the space with dashing style, Kay's role seems to be played mainly for laughs. As expected, the bratty and impudent young woman becomes the culprit of the animosity in the family, spearheading the misogynistic vein given by the antiquate nature of the text.
Blessed plays into this: by pitting the women against each other and fomenting old resentment and bitterness, he takes the attention off the real plotline. He nimbly uses her to muddy the waters, never addressing the unneeded and overtired cattiness between the two. This disposition of the piece is the only slightly bothersome element, but one understands that it's due to the exceptionally traditional quality of the material and Blessed's true approach to it.
The male actors are equally remarkable, with Noel White and Rob Heanly standing out particularly as Matthew Treves and Neville. George Telfer is Superintendent Battle, assigned to the case with his nephew Inspector Leach, played by Chris Pybus. The latter two bring an air of no-nonsense to the flamboyant and melodramatic tendencies of the household, cutting to the chase and leading to the solution of the crime.
Dinah England (set designer) and Natalie Titchener (costumes) build onto the classic hues of the play with the neutral tones of the drawing room and dapper clothes, with the three-piece suits and gorgeous tea dresses having as much of an impact as the splashy characters themselves.
As directed by Blessed, Towards Zero is sophisticated and suave. The cast is sharp in both looks and delivery and the direction is resolute in its character establishment. They juggle humour and drama effortlessly, adding dashes of foreshadowing and self-referential hints generously to present a delightful out-of-London experience.
Photo credit: Andreas Lambis