Under Milk Wood

Dylan Thomas
East Riding Theatre
East Riding Theatre

Hannah Levy, Alice Palmer, Finlay McGuigan and Gordon Meredith Credit: Sara Kruger Photography
The company of Under Milk Wood Credit: Sara Kruger Photogrpahy

The challenge for any company staging Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece, is how to bring to life a largely plotless illustration of Welsh village life, complete with a vast array of extraordinary characters. The principal strength of Thomas’s work is in the language: poetic, vivid, funny and, at times outrageous. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was initially produced as a radio play before being adapted for the stage and eventually a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In choosing Under Milk Wood as only his second production since taking over as Artistic Director of the East Riding Theatre, Richard Avery takes on this formidable challenge—along with his ensemble of four actors (Hannah Levy, Finlay McGuigan, Gordon Meredith and Alice Palmer).

That this company meets the challenge so well is no small feat and the (nearly full) audience was engaged, amused and enchanted by a confident and colourful production. Avery, who also plays the narrator, is blessed with a rich and sonorous voice, so as he articulates the familiar opening “To begin at the beginning”, the audience know they are in safe hands. However, by placing himself aloft and so far upstage, away from the rest of the action and, thereby the audience, the communication of the narration is not so visceral and sharp as it could be; for the scenes where Avery plays the ailing Captain Cat, the sense of distance works better as the old man observes the village and his past, far removed from everyday life.

Under Milk Wood presents us with the wildest dreams of eccentric characters, so the playing needs to be vibrant and energetic—and so it proves to be. There is little room for subtlety in a story which explores the repressed fantasies of schoolteacher Mr Pugh as he dreams of poisoning his domineering wife. Or the meticulous Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, so fastidious a landlady she never allows anyone to stay in her boarding house, but dreams instead of bullying her long-dead husbands. This is a surreal and fanciful world, and a major achievement of the production is the way in which the company celebrates those dreamlike qualities through choreographed movement and commendable vocal work.

The use of music and dancing at the start of each half ("Rock Around the Clock" and "Teddy Bear") frames the production in the 1950s but jars somewhat, as Thomas’s world is one of antiquity, repression and unfulfilled dreams. Whilst well executed, this is a slightly destabilising and unnecessary production choice—plunging the play, albeit momentarily, into a world which feels too modern and liberated.

Without doubt the greatest achievement of this production is the delivery of Thomas’s language and, thereby, his characters. There is a temptation when faced with the challenge of lyrical verse drama to try to sound beautiful as opposed to characterful. The production does not make that mistake, which is all to the credit of actors and director alike. The playing is marked by ringing clarity, impeccable timing and impressive Welsh accents—all rooted in an understanding of character.

Credit too must be given to the design team. The little world of Llaregub is created through set designer Emily Clay’s use of miniature houses in the foreground and a backdrop of utilitarian objects framed on the back wall that reaches up to a picture of clouds—images of the everyday mundane, bordered by the world of dreams. Jamie Tom’s lighting design take us through the hours of each day, with colourful and atmospheric changes.

This is a confident and successful, though not flawless, production of a classic play. East Riding Theatre is a potential jewel in the theatrical crown of the Yorkshire theatre world. I wish the new Artistic Director and his team well in realising that potential. This production is a positive omen.

Reviewer: Richard Vergette

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