Under Milk Wood
The London Theatre Company
Review by Howard Loxton
Dylan Thomas's 'Play for Voices' was commissioned by the BBC and first broadcast on the Third Programme in January 1954, after Thomas's death, but it had been given earlier public readings and privately recorded a few months earlier with him as the first narrator while visiting the United States. After more than half a century, during there have been numerous stagings and readings, it still comes over as fresh and engaging. It presents a word picture of a seaside village in Wales populated with eccentric and delightful characters who are brought to gossiping, fornicating, worshipping, reminiscing life, including some who are dead.
In this new production director Malcolm Taylor has gone for simplicity. He places most of his cast sitting on two level rostra facing the audience with the two narrators sitting at music stands on either side of the stage. Against a sky-cloth that is lit to match the passing hours are ranged some craggy ground rows and the two levels - the lowest might just be the harbour quay - that are littered with props consisting mainly of lobster nets, ropes, an oar and other things to suggest a little fishing town, though the green rows make it feel more like hillside country than the cobbles and stone houses that Thomas describes for Llareggub.
Most of the cast take their places on the stage and nod off to sleep before the show begins with the narrators walking to their positions, a black out and a quick double tap of stick on music stand before the light comes up on Philip Madoc as the First Voice. Only the Rev. Eli Jenkins (Howell Evans, sitting centre stage front) is allowed to get up and walk a few paces to greet the morning or give his evening prayer. The others, save for Polly Garter who scrubs her way through her song about her many lovers, may only stand or sit but this concentrates attention upon them as with eloquent use of gesture and expression they each bring many characters to life, singly or in vivid interaction.
Philip Madoc, whose wonderfully rich voice I love, is ideal, I would have thought, to narrate this story, begins appropriately quietly but with a rather rapid, throw-away delivery. He seems to be deliberately avoiding the rich rotundities and Welshness that make this verse such a delight, as if determined to avoid any comparison with the familiar recorded performances by Richard Burton or Thomas himself. The fact that he either is, or affects to be, actually reading much of the text weakens his communication with the audience, though the occasional look or gesture to them is very effective. Perhaps he has a cold or some infection and has to save his voice, but his restrained delivery is a disappointment and, if a conscious decision on the part of performer or director, I think a mistake, especially as his companion voice, Gareth Kennerley, gives a much more projected delivery.
That said, the director has got his cast to produce beautifully timed performances, carrying a line or a conversation between like a passage of music and giving a vibrant life to Thomas's fascinating villagers and their foibles. He has made a point of casting against type, often asking youngsters to play aged and oldsters play young, and one can relish the actors' skills as well as love their characterisations. I particularly liked Howell Evans's Mr Pugh and Anne Rutter as the wife he dreams of poisoning, Glyn Pritchard's and Jennifer Hill's Organ Morgan and Mrs Morgan, Cerith Flinn's No Good Boyo and Sinbad Sailors and Abi Harris's Polly Garter. In all the cast bring more than forty characters to life - plus the recorded voice of David Jason as a very English guide book, though I'm not sure that the idea of having the others respond to his banalities as mindless American tourists was a good one - surely that is not in the script. Did Taylor discover it in one of Thomas's various drafts or was it his own directorial addition?
When planning Under Milk Wood Thomas called it 'an entertainment our of the darkness' and this production shows that whether heard with the eyes closed or emerging into light from the dark of a theatre auditorium it still delights with its wonderful language, its clever characterisations and its bawdy humour
At Tricycle Theatre 13th - 24th May 2008