Under Milk Wood
The Watermill Theatre
Reviewed – 26th October 2017
“The Watermill provides a perfect backdrop to Thomas’s bucolic celebration”
‘To begin, at the beginning’. Dylan Thomas wrote his ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, for the radio. After a US premiere as a stage play, its first UK performance was on the BBC in 1954 with a starry cast that included Richard Burton, Sybil Thorndike and Emlyn Williams.
The piece is more like an extended poem than a play and it unfolds as a series of funny and touching vignettes all on one Spring day in an entirely fictional Welsh seaside town called Llareggub (‘bugger all’ backwards).
Dylan Thomas was a poet, intoxicated with the power of words. Who can forget a phrase like ‘the sloeback, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat bobbing sea’? His writing is rich with wonderfully descriptive language that paints a vivid picture of the interlinked lives of his many characters.
After its radio debut, this joyful celebration of a kind of picturesque Welshness soon won a loyal following. A stage version in which the cast sat on stools for most of the performance was a big success, and in 1972 Burton reprised his role as narrator in a film. An animated version and several TV productions all followed.
The delightful Watermill Theatre at Newbury is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Its rustic setting provides a perfect backdrop to Thomas’s bucolic celebration. Director Brendan O’Hea’s staging, with design by Anna Kelsey is fittingly simple for a voice-driven play, with some atmospheric lighting (Wayne Dowdeswell), much (but not too much) mist and hardly any props. The talented cast of six give passionate and physical performances, sharing over 30 male and female roles. Some sympathetic new music (Olly Fox) has been added and they make good use of the auditorium as well as the stage.
First on is Welsh-born Lynn Hunter as old Captain Cat. She gives a wonderfully warm performance in this role and later also as Mrs Organ Morgan. As the Voice, Alistair McGowan (‘The Big Impression’, ‘Have I Got News for You’) rightly does not attempt to imitate the lyrical intensity of Richard Burton’s performances. His accent is light. He moves around the action, providing an adept commentary to it.
Charlotte O’Leary gives a particularly memorable performance as ever-nagging house-perfect Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard who calls her two long-suffering ex-husbands back from the grave to recite their daily tasks, in order. Steffan Cennydd won the Richard Burton Award before graduating this year. His acting is passionate and compelling. Without leaving the stage, he switches easily between male and female roles, with some wonderful comic moments as Mae Rose Cottage (‘Call me Dolores, like they do in stories’).
Polly Garter is one of the play’s most memorable characters, forever mourning her lost lover, little Willy Wee. Caroline Sheen sang and acted to great effect both as Polly and as Lord Cut-Glass who ‘scampers from clock to clock, a bunch of clock-keys in one hand, a fish-head in the other’. Ross Ford is 6’5” tall, an unusual height for an actor. He is well-cast as the sinister poisoner Mr Pugh, as Nogood Boyo, who never catches anything but a whalebone corset, and the boozy Cherry Owen.
The play closes as ‘dusk is drowned’ and ‘the windy town is a hill of windows’. A delightful and memorable evening in a perfect setting.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
UNDER MILK WOOD
is at The Watermill Theatre until 4th November