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Enchanted April (Mill at Sonning Theatre)

Elizabeth von Armin's post-WWI novel is brought to life in this "charming" new version at the Mill st Sonning Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jai Armstrong and Melanie Gutteridge

Set in the period just after the First World War, Elizabeth von Armin's novel Enchanted April has been adapted for film and stage more than once since its publication in 1922. For this production, the Mill at Sonning Theatre have used Mathew Barber's 2003 Tony nominated script and brought it to life with a fine sensibility and understanding of the subject matter.

This charming piece revolves around the transformation of four very different women, who for different reasons are at an unhappy period in their lives. Lotty Wilton, stifled and dissatisfied with her life, spots an advertisement in the Times for a month's let in a small Italian castle that promises "wisteria and sunshine". Seeing her chance to escape dreary, rain-lashed England and regenerate her life, she joins forces with an acquaintance, Rose Arnott, who Lotty senses is also in need of a respite from marital woes. To fund their expedition, they advertise for additional companions and are joined by the elderly and formidable Mrs Fisher and the troubled society beauty Lady Caroline. In Italy all four are beguiled and heartened by the transformative effects of the idyllic setting and also their rediscovery of themselves.

It is lovely to see a play with good strong roles for women, and Enchanted April is just that – the male characters are mostly foils for the unfolding stories of the ladies. Having said that, Martyn Stanbridge and Jai Armstrong, as Lotty and Rose's husbands, give fine supporting performances with more than a touch of brio, as does Christopher Leveaux as Anthony Wilding, the Castle's charming owner.

But it is the sometimes spikey but ultimately supportive interaction between women that gives the play its heart. Sarah Edwardson's powerful interpretation of the passionate and fanciful Lotty has the perfect foil in Melanie Gutteridge as Rose, whose troubles are deeper and more cutting than those of her new friend. Though they have less fully drawn roles, Francesca Bailey and Hildergard Neil give excellent performances as Lady Caroline and Mrs Graves, and I must also applaud the fifth woman of the ménage, the hilarious Italian housekeeper Constanza (Anna-Maria Everett), who is laugh-out loud funny throughout.

The production design (including lighting) is very clever, perfectly capturing the dreariness of a London winter at the beginning and then enfolding the audience into the rejuvenating warmth and colour of an Italian spring. Sure-handed direction by Sally Hughes brings out the underlying pathos of the script while also unleashing the humour that is undeniably there.

Enchanted April makes for an enjoyable evening out; it is hopeful and joyous, and carries the wonderful message that anyone's life can be transformed for the better.

Enchanted April runs at the Mill at Sonning Theatre until 17th May.