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UNDER MILK WOOD – Richmond Theatre, London.

“Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.” under milk wood, richmond theatre, london

Dylan Thomas’s ‘play for voices’ is not just one of the greatest radio dramas of all time, it is also the definitive argument that language can be as profoundly musical as any symphony or sonata. Part lyrical spoken-word poem, part vigorous comedy of manners, Under Milk Wood evokes a teeming world of 60-odd characters and their duties, dreams and deepest desires during 24 hours in the sleepy Welsh seaside town of Llareggub (read backwards for a taste of the poet’s sly wit).

For the 60th anniversary of its first BBC radio broadcast, and in Thomas’s centenary year, Terry Hands and Clwyd Theatr Cymru have produced a stage version of this great work, which both enhances and occasionally hampers its intense aural pleasures. Hands directs with palpable affection, and the spirited cast deliver the material with relish and warm humour, but the too-literal staging sometimes just doubles up the spoken storytelling, Hands hamstrung by the lack of action; Under Milk Wood is composed entirely of exquisitely small incidents.  

Nevertheless, the cast of 11 do an exceptional job of handling the epic sprawl of Thomas’s tale, with Hedydd Dylan, Sara Harris-Davies, Caryl Morgan and Simon Nehan particularly skilled in switching from one character to another, giving each a distinctive physicality to accompany their idiosyncratic voice. Helen Ognjenovic-Morgan’s costumes offer a neutral base on which to build, and Owen Teale and Christian Patterson’s narrators calmly guide us from one scuttling sub-plot to another.

Martyn Bainbridge’s ingenious set emphasises that we have the seagull’s-eye view: the giant sundial backdrop looks down upon the tiny town nestled between green hills and the bright blue of the bay. As Teale implores us to “Listen! Time passes”, we can also watch it pass, from dawn breaking through to the day gradually fading, until the lights of the miniature houses are just pinpricks in the all-consuming gloom. The effect is hypnotic, and a nice tonal match for this loving parody of a lost world, where the claustrophobically close-knit community is inescapable, gossip takes place around the town pump rather than online, and the Sailors Arms is always open. 

Of course, any romanticising is undercut by Thomas’s brisk earthiness, which Hands’ production demonstrates ably in the roiling hormonal encounters and fiery brutality of the children’s games, training for the clashes, heartbreaks and heaving carnal experiences of adulthood. However, there is also an intrinsic darkness to Thomas’s work that is shortchanged here, with the broad eagerness pushing the caricature into cartoon, and performers sometimes overegging the pudding. 

Steven Meo, though a skilled physical comedian, is most guilty, milking the farce of characters like Nogood Boyo, Willy Nilly and Sinbad Sailors until we are wrenched out of the fantasy. Ifan Huw Dafydd doesn’t quite land Captain Cat’s grief at losing his shipmates, but fares better when paired with Harris-Davies’ late Rosie Probert, “the one love of his sea-life that was sardined with women”, while Sophie Melville struggles to convey the sourness of Mrs Pugh and dangerous gypsy sensuality of Mrs Dai Bread Two, but is well cast as luminous Gossamer Beynon.

Morgan and Dylan vie for title of most versatile: the former switching between romantic Miss Price, full of longing, self-critical Lily Smalls, roaring octogenarian Mary Ann Sailors and imperious tot Gwennie; the latter embodying bristling hard taskmistress Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, whose husbands’ death cannot halt her OCD hen-pecking (“Before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes”), a snobby RP guidebook, and fecund Polly Garter, whose lilting, poignant folk song is memorably stirring. 

Harris-Davies plays a succession of put-upon women, from long-suffering Mrs Organ Morgan (“I’m a martyr to music”) to waddling Mrs Dai Bread One and the postman’s wife who lives vicariously through others by assiduously steaming open the town’s letters. Richard Elfyn’s “draper mad with love” Mog Edwards is charming, though his would-be poisoner Mr Pugh suffers from an overuse of vocal gymnastics. Nehan punctures the pomposity of self-proclaimed poet Rev Eli Jenkins, but also revels in the humanity of his verses: “We are not wholly bad or good/Who live our lives under Milk Wood”.

Omniscient narrator Teale is no match for Richard Burton’s legendary majesty and natural authority, but his sure, sonorous delivery grows in strength as the evening wears on and is enlivened by his wry eye-rolling as he reacts to madcap events. Patterson as Second Voice seems to have taken his cue from Brian Blessed, booming in jolly jocularity, but losing some of the nuance.

The ensemble work is most impressive, voices combining in soulful harmonies to underscore the text, overlapping in excitable polyphony, singing out the onomatopoeia, or creating a rich soundscape, from dogs barking to babies crying or a kettle whistling shrilly on the hob. There are still moments when you want to close your eyes and surrender to dreams, with Hands’ rendering unable to truly compete with the wide world of the imagination, but he and his talented company come awfully close.

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Reviewed 07/07/14

By Marianka Swain

8th July – 12th July 2014
Richmond Theatre, London, TW9.

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