Sunday 4 June 2023


Theatre review: Gypsy at The Mill at Sonning

I've only been to dinner theatre The Mill at Sonning twice so far (my first visit was for the toe-tappingly tremendous Top Hat), but it's already established itself as a firm-favourite venue in my book. Aside from the stunning countryside setting (making this feel like a proper day out) and delicious two-course buffet that accompanies every performance, the quality of the productions they put on is really impressive. The talent on stage, sets, and costume designs give the West End a run for its money (and the ticket price is much better value for theatre-goers too!). 

The musical Gypsy – with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – is based on the real-life memoirs of legendary striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. We first meet her as child-performer Louise in the 1920 when she is overshadowed by her younger, blonder, and supposedly more talented sister, known in the Vaudeville world as "Baby June". 

Their mother Rose only has one goal in life: make June a star. She will do anything to get her youngest daughter on a stage, even if that means stealing from her father, scraping her last pennies together to be able to travel to the next theatre, and neglecting not only her romantic partner but also her oldest daughter. Louise who doesn't crave the spotlight and just wants to make her mother happy. Even if that means playing the front half of a cow while her little sister tap-dances and sings in the spotlight...

It's easy to see why the team at The Mill at Sonning has chosen this Sondheim show as their summer musical. It's a real crowd-pleasing classic. In addition to the show-stopping "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (which was stunningly belted by Rebecca Thornhill as Rose in this production), it's filled with music embodying both the recognisable sounds of the Vaudeville as well as the iconic tones of musical theatre. The best of two entertaining worlds to create a stagey spectacle. 

And a spectacle it was. The first act shows Rose taking her daughters on the Vaudeville circuit. Mia Burton as Baby June and Aimee Brain as young Louise where phenomenal in their respective roles. Baby June's performances outrageously caricaturist, getting madder with each show and young Louise shrinking into the background more-and-more. 

And then, through deft staging, the young actors are switched for their older counterparts. Several years down the line, they're still pretending to be child performers but now with Marina Tavolieri as June and Evelyn Hoskins as Louise, both adult actors the perfect mirror images of their young incarnations. This is when we move away from watching one Vaudeville performance after another in favour of character development. No longer do we see just one side to Rose, June, and Louise. They become real people – and that's when we get truly invested in their characters. 

I did miss some of that development in the much shorter second act. The character changes happened quickly and felt somewhat out of the blue. I appreciate that's the source material, and not the fault of this particular production, but I do wish the second half took as much time to show the characters evolving throughout the years as the first act did. Given the second half's shorter runtime and fewer musical numbers, there is certainly an opportunity to expand more upon Louise's journey to becoming Gypsy Rose Lee. 

That said, both the young and older actors portraying Louise and June were absolutely fantastic and made the most of the material they were given. However, this is very much the Rebecca Thornhill show. The character of Rose is a vehicle for stardom and she rides it from the opening number until the curtain call. She has an amazing stage presence and it was a joy to see her perform so up close in the intimate auditorium of this theatre. 

You can't go wrong with a classic such as Gypsy and this production really has pulled out all the stops. The sets and costumes, which are all made in-house, are absolutely lush. And the staging and choreography is so clever for such a small space. I love how they used the stairs in-between the seating as an extension of the stage; it made the show feel very immersive and much bigger than it was in reality.

Also, there is a real-life dog on stage! He (sadly) only appears at the start of the first act, but what an adorable ball of fluff. The team at The Mill at Sonning clearly have a more-is-more approach to their productions to make them as spectacular as can be – and I love it. 

Gypsy is playing at the Mill at Sonning until 15 July 2023 and you can book your tickets here.

Every ticket at The Mill at Sonning comes with a buffet-style, two-course meal, making it incredible value and well-worth the trip out of town if you're London-based. There's plenty on on offer to fit various dietary requirements, and from the current menu I particularly recommend the succulent roast pork and the gorgeous rhubarb Bakewell tart with ice cream. Delicious. 

Rebecca Thornhill as Mama Rose. Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

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