Perching by a bridge on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, The Mill at Sonning provides an excellent example of new uses for old buildings. Mills have existed at Sonning since the days of Domesday, and the main parts of the present building and the waterwheels date back to 1890. By the time the mill closed in 1969 it was one of the last mills on the Thames driven by wheels. Eight years later Tim and Eileen Richards stepped in to begin the restoration of the Grade II listed building – and its new use as a theatre. The Mill provides a two-course buffet lunch or dinner to its theatregoers as part of the ticket price. We noticed that at least one diner interpreted “buffet” as “all you can eat”. The restaurant experience is unusual; you go up and collect your main course, then the dessert and coffee is provided by waiter service.
The theatre itself is intimate with only 215 seats – it’s the first time I’ve seen a sign saying PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE STAGE (and if you’re sitting in the front row, that is genuinely difficult). We went to a performance of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web (1954), a typically convoluted whodunit set in a country house in Kent. The director, Brian Blessed, is better known as an actor with a booming voice. One of his most famous roles was in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon; I half-hoped the play would feature a character called Gordon who came back from apparent death so that we could hear a Blessed boom of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”
The Mill is proud of not only the theatre and restaurant but its sustainable principles. In 2005 it launched the first Hydro Electric Scheme to be powered by the natural resources of The River Thames. The scheme generates enough electric energy for the theatre’s numerous lights, restaurant dining rooms, bars, ovens, backstage corridors, dressing rooms, wardrobe areas, set construction workshops, control box and the administration offices.