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Under Milk Wood

Dylan Thomas
Nottingham Theatre Royal, and touring
(2004)

To begin at the beginning, Michael Bogdanov's production of Dylan Thomas's "play for voices" has stirring, evocative music from a Welsh choir filling the auditorium, while a black-and-white photograph of the author looks down from the back of the stage.

The customary announcement asking members of the audience to turn off mobile phones and pagers is heard - in Welsh as well as English.

First Voice Russell Gomer's head is eerily picked out by spotlights from different angles which illustrate the blackness of the seaside town of Llareggub.

When the lights go up the eight actors who take on the 60-plus characters appear on a heavily raked platform. It's an uncluttered, effective design by Ulrike Engelbrecht. This is Llaregubb Hill where we witness the strange goings-on involving the town's inhabitants over 24 hours on a spring day.

Under Milk Wood is the first offering by the Wales Theatre Company whose aim is to raise the profile of Welsh theatre throughout the UK and beyond. The production commemorates 50 years since the play was first read in New York as well as the 50th anniversary of Thomas's death.

He never heard or saw Under Milk Wood performed. No doubt he would have approved of Bogdanov's production.

The strength of the play is Thomas's beautiful language. The First Voice narrates the daily goings-on in the town - there are echoes of Laugharne, New Quay and Swansea where Thomas lived during his 39 years - while the Second Voice reveals the inhabitants' innermost thoughts.

Gomer, who played Thomas in Portrait of an Artist for Theatr Clwyd, obviously knows the writer's work extremely well. He gives a complete performance. The language rolls effortlessly off his tongue yet he makes the most of every syllable.

Erica Eirian (Second Voice) is only marginally less expressive and moves seamlessly from the edge of the stage onto Llareggub Hill when she becomes several of the town's characters.

You might assume that you'd have difficulty telling all the townsfolk apart. But they're all individually introduced and the actors change effortlessly from one to another with a meaningful facial expression or a telling body movement.

The enduring quality of Thomas's work is that people will always want to hear about these extraordinary residents and their complicated lives. There's gossip, sexual tension, death and more as the audience are told that "from where you are you can hear their dreams."

Some of the characters are unforgettable too: Dai Bread with his two wives, one for the day and one for the night; Organ Morgan; Gossamer Benyon and Nogood Boyo. The eight actors bring them all to life in a touching, sensitive and funny way. On top of that they sing delightfully in harmony.

At least half of the cast have worked with Bogdanov before. It leads to a stylish, tight production which will bring both Thomas and the Wales Theatre Company to the attention of many more admiring fans.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in Newcastle.

"Under Milk Wood" tours to Southend, Bradford, Hull, Sheffield, Plymouth, Malvern, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham until June 26th

Reviewer: Steve Orme