EVERYBODY knows the Mill at Sonning. Or thinks they do.
EVERYBODY knows the Mill at Sonning. Or thinks they do.
But behind the elegant sign that advertises the entrance to the former 18th century flour mill, changes are afoot.
The 215-seat theatre has been up and running since 1982, when it was opened by Tim and Eileen Richards.
They had bought and converted the derelict mill at Sonning Eye, which ceased production in 1969, having for many years supplied the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory in Reading.
A successful civil engineer in his earlier career, Tim Richards died in 2002. Eileen passed away in June last year, aged 89.
Today the Mill is run by the couple’s younger daughter, Sally Hughes. As the managing director, it is she who is overseeing the series of gradual changes currently under way at the venue.
Following on from the unveiling of the Mill’s newly refurbished Waterwheel Bar back in April, the latest initiative is the launch of a members’ club — to be known as the Friends of The Mill.
A party to mark the occasion is being held next Friday (September 9) from 12.30pm to 2.30pm.
Champagne and canapés will be served and there will be music from West End star Glyn Kerslake, who has played lead roles in The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard and Les Misérables among others.
Sally intimated that a number of celebrity guests would be in attendance — one of whom is well known to Henley Standard readers.
“I’m delighted to announce that actor, writer, director and man of the theatre Simon Williams has agreed to be the president of our members’ club,” she said. “As a dear friend and loyal supporter of the Mill for over 30 years he is the perfect choice.”
The good news for fans of the Mill with a window in their diary next Friday is that there is still time to sign up for the Friends scheme.
Membership is £125 for the year and benefits include 10 per cent off tickets, merchandise and drinks purchased in the bar and restaurant.
Another key benefit is priority booking for all new shows, enabling members to book the seats they want before they go on general sale.
A backstage “walk and talk” tour of the theatre with an experienced member of staff is also part of the package, as are exclusive offers and promotions including the chance to win free tickets.
Friends of the Mill will also be credited in future show programmes and on the website.
Last but not least, they will be invited to attend two annual season launch parties at the Mill, alongside VIP guests.
The venue for the party will be the Waterwheel Bar, the refurbishment of which was just the first stage in a long-term plan to give the Mill a broader appeal to customers across all age groups.
As Sally explains, the bar is now open all day from Tuesday to Sunday, enabling the venue to host a range of different events in the daytime.
“We’ve got bar food for sale and we do things like children’s storytelling on Wednesday mornings. We take children into the theatre for that and then bring them back into the bar area so they can see the waterwheel start up. We also have a dressing-up box in the bar.
“The idea is to start introducing, without us imposing on people that might not want to — I’ve got to really judge — but to make it a place that’s an arty place to come. So there might be a play reading in the bar one day, for example — actors getting together to do a play reading, which is fascinating to watch. Or a music lesson. Or we have a book club every month. Things like that.”
Having opened up the bar, the next stage of Sally’s vision is to remake the restaurant and dining area, which occupies the next two floors up.
She says of the Mill: “It’s a family business but it’s got a little old-fashioned so we’re just refurbishing it and bringing it up to scratch.
“The bar now is very what they call boho chic or industrial chic. We had these two young Greek designers come in and they’ve done wonders with it.
“But really we’ve taken it back to how it was, because when my mother and father renovated it it was the Seventies, when it was sort of black — all the beams were painted black and lots of Artex was put in and so it still had that look. And the restaurant still looks like that — but now we’ve taken all this paint off the beautiful beams and it’s gorgeous.”
Sally adds that the new-look restaurant will be refurbished along the same lines as the bar. Once this is done there are plans to offer a slightly different service to the current buffet arrangement, the details of which are being finalised. Speaking to Sally, it is clear that none of these changes are being made for their own sake.
Rather, what drives her is a determination to continue moving forward to meet the challenges of a world made far less certain by the financial crisis that began almost 10 years ago.
“I think with the recession it’s been tough for the leisure business,” she says. “We’ve lost a certain amount of audience and I think the only business that doesn’t look forwards to the future and start looking for customers — you’ve got to think of the future, all the time, otherwise you’re just going to suddenly be left with no customers.”
As Sally tells it, it was a little while before the effects of what experts now refer to as the Great Recession started to make themselves felt.
“It was slightly delayed with us, I suppose. But suddenly, from having gone for 20 years with Saturday nights being absolutely full with a waiting list, suddenly in the middle of the summer there were some Saturday nights that, you know, had seats to sell.
“And it was like, ‘Gosh, this is strange!’ And then we were finding with our older audience that they weren’t getting the returns on their investments — the interest rates were nothing. And then of course the younger audience, with families, everyone was suddenly strapped.
“It sort of started slowing down — and then the crisis hit. And then it — yeah, goodness, really, it was tough. Really having to steer through and make cuts without it imploding on the business and without it, you know, making sure your loyal staff didn’t lose their jobs — and that’s what kept it going.
“But now things are better, things are looking up — things are really looking up, so it’s time to invest.”
In a letter introducing the Friends scheme, Sally wrote: “The Mill receives no funding from any outside source. Not from the government. Nor any charity. Nor donor of any kind. It survives purely on what it makes at the box office.
“As a listed building of over 400 years, essential repairs must be made. We invite you, our public, to join us in keeping alive the magic of the Mill.”
For more information on becoming a member, call the box office on 0118 969 8000 or visit www.millatsonning.com/friendsofthemill