Delighting in bugger all

Cast of Under Milk Wood

Caryl Morgan as the schoolgirl demanding a kiss or a penny from the boys in her class led by Kai Owen, with Richard Elfyn, Simon Nehan and Steven Meo egging him on. Pictures Catherine Ashmore

Under Milk Wood

Birmingham Rep

*****

DYLAN Thomas had that ability to turn language into music, sing along sentences painting pictures in the mind, and director Terry Hands and his talented cast of 11 have taken Thomas’s melodies of words and turned them into a symphony, bringing Llareggub to vibrant life in a quite stunning performance.

This Clwyd Theatr Cymru production celebrates the centenary of Thomas’s birth, and, incidentally, the 60th anniversary of its famed radio premiere on the BBC in 1954 which saw Richard Burton as First Voice. That first UK performance was published two months after Thomas’s death, at the age of 39, in New York.

It was first broadcast in shortened form as a Play For Voices on the Third Programme, and then the complete play, again with Burton in the main role, was broadcast by the BBC in 1963. It is arguably the greatest radio play we have yet heard.

And there is the rub. It is a radio play with all the freedom of storytelling that entails, a different scene for every character, a different set for every scene, a world created for and in the mind of the listener.

To move that to the stage without even a hint of it being a well rehearsed reading is not easy so Hands has done a remarkable job of creating Thomas’s sleepy, Welsh fishing village of radio within the confines of a circular stage with a sweeping ramp on one side and steps to the lonely crow’s nest of blind Captain Cat on the other.

Thomas's words, full of alliteration and onomatopoeia, flow like water dancing over stones in a brook and Hands lets them hurry on their way, harnessing their natural rhythm yet pacing their flow, asking the audience to stop and listen to the silence, or making a point with pauses, creating islands of calm amid the tinkling stream of words.

Martyn Bainbridges’s simple, yet effective design also includes a huge, circular 3D map of Llareggub as a backdrop, a sort of model village with a sun that tracks across the sky to mark the hours, and lights that come on in the houses as dusk falls. How the boats get in and out of the harbour is a bit of a mystery though . . .

A lot of thought has gone into the production with everyone dressed in non-descript beige, almost uniforms, with identical tunic dresses for women and the same trousers, braces and shirts for men with the only colours, and even those mooted, the tweed suit of  Owen Teale’s First Voice and Christian Patterson’s black waistcoated Second Voice.

It is a production where the technical side deserve equal billing Owen Teale as First Voicewith the actors. Hands, again, is responsible for lighting which gives us the ethereal light of moonlight, the mellow tones of dawn and dusk around the bright sunlight of noon, with individuals picked out by pencils of light through the darkness in the play’s dramatic moments.

There is drama a plenty, and sadness and pathos and every emotion known to man in Thomas’s affectionate look at a day in the life of a village – but there is also humour, big, belly laugh humour in both Thomas’s characters and some lovely touches from the cast, such as First Voices attempts to carry on amid Willy Nilly the postman’s somewhat expressive ablutions.

 

Swansea born Owen Teale is magnificent in the difficult role of First Voice

Teale, as First Voice, commands the stage, with a sonorous voice, tinged with his native Welsh lilt, and a twinkle in his eye as the narrator and confidante of the audience. His is a part of tongue twisting language at play, words tumbling over each other building impressionist's pictures of sound. It is a magnificent erfromance.

Patterson is his echo as Second Voice, which leaves the remaining nine actors covering the other 36 named parts and many more unheralded with just voices and mannerisms to aid them as we meet them all first through their dreams.

Thus we have Ifan Huw Dafydd as Mr Waldo, poacher and quack, who dreams of his many unhappy, failed marriages and his affair with Polly Garter, played by Hedydd Daylan. He is also blind Captain Cat, dreaming of dead shipmates and his lost, dead lover Rosie Probert, played by Sarah Harris-Davies, who also provides Mrs Willy Nilly, who helps steam open the letters so Willy Nilly, the postman, played by Steven Meo,  can tell everyone in the village the news.

She is also Mrs Organ Morgan, dreaming of peace and quiet from her church organist husband’s, Meo again, constant music, and Bessie Bighead, the farm hand dreaming of the one man who kissed her, and that ‘only for a dare’.

And then she is Mrs Butcher Benyon teased unmercifully by her butcher husband, played by Simon Nehan, about the dubious meat he pretends to sell; and she is Mrs Dai Bread One, one of baker Dai Bread’s two wives. She is the one who moves down the street ‘like a jelly’ unlike Mrs Dai Bread Two, played by Sophie Melville, who is a somewhat more sultry and sensual alternative for Dai, played by Kai Owen, who also fills in as Evans the Death, the undertaker, farmer Utah Watkins and Cherry Owens who dreams of drink.

Melville transforms into his wife wh delights in having two husbands, Cherry drunk and Cherry sober, as well as Mrs Pugh, the noasty, disagreeable wife of Mr Pugh, who dreams of killing her in a performance worthy of a Dickensian character full of obsequious humility, my dear, by Richard Elfyn.

Elfyn also gives us Lord Cut Glass, the village eccentric, in that he is furthest from normal, who is obsessed with his clocks, and Mog Edwards, the draper, who has a passionate affair, but only by letter, with Myfanwy Price, played by Caryl Morgan, the sweetshop owner, who dreams of marriage to Mog in their postal passions, a picture of spinsterdom with her 'lonely, loving hotwaterbottled body'.

Morgan is also Butcher Benyon’s maid Lily Smalls dreaming of love and excitement, Mary Anne Sailors, 85 years old and matriarch of the Sailor’s Arms where her grandson the barman, Sinbad Sailors, Meo again, pulls pints and dreams of Gossamer Benyon, Melville again, teacher daughter of butcher, who in turn dreams of sin with Sinbad yet the two avoid any chance of lust becoming reality.

Sara Harris-Davies as Mrs Dai Bread One, left, and Sophie Melville as Mrs Dai Bread Two

Morgan is also Mae Rose Cottage who is 17 and never been kissed who dreams of passion and sins of the flesh and draws lipstick circles around her nipples.

Then there is Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, played by Dylan who, as well as Polly Garter, also gives us Mrs Utah Watkins.

Mr Ogmore-Pritchard runs a guesthouse where no one is allowed to stay because she does not want her beds or sheets slept in. She summonses her dead husbands, Mr Pitchard, Elfyn, and Mr Ogmore, Nehan, in her nightly dreams and makes them recite their chores. Mr Pritchard committed suicide by ironically drinking disinfectant and having met his wife it is easy to see why.

Then here is Polly Garter, perhaps the saddest of them all, a single mother who dreams of her string of lovers and her one true love Willy who drowned. She scrubs floors for a living including the village hall where the “wedding-ringed holy tonight” dance is to be held, a dance where she will not be welcome.

She suffers the “dumb goose hiss” of the other women of the village and is lusted after by the men.

She tells herself: ‘You’re no better than you should be, Polly, and that’s good enough for me.’  Her song of lost love is a moving hghlight of the show.

There are other characters scattered through the cast with the milkman Ocky, PC Attila Rees, the village policeman who pulls his helmet from under his bed and relieves himself in it, which we are told, unsurprisingly, is something he will regret it in the morning.

There is Jack Black the puritan cobbler,  the schoolgirl who demands a kiss or a penny from all the boys, Nogood Boyo, an idle fisherman with fantasies about Mrs Dai Bread Two, and the Rev Eli Jenkins, author of the White Book of Llareggub, poet and preacher with his poems to welcome morning and evening in the village. Thomas was a wonderful poet, the good reverend is. . . not.

He is more from the William McGonagall school of doggerel verse, which, as you all will know, is much, much  . . . worse. If you see what I mean.

The cast, with nothing to aid them but their acting talent create a complete community, a villageful of people, all with different voices, different mannerisms, and different personalities. There is humour, with some wonderfully funny moments, a little sadness, some eccentricity and above all a warm humanity. These are people, exaggerated, as they might be, that we can still recognise.

The result is wonderful writing, wonderful acting and wonderful entertainment. If you are one of those who has never seen, heard or read Under Milk Wood then this is a glorious chance to see what you have missed. To 07-06-14

Roger Clarke

02-06-14

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