Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Bugger all to enjoy here

Gus MacDonald

Gus MacDonald, a gripping perfomer in half a dozen roles, holds the village pub enthralled.

Pictures: Helen Ashbourne

Under Milk Wood

Loft Theatre Company, Leamington


I have said it before, and in these pages will venture it again: the Loft Theatre Company in Leamington does not just approach professional standards; in certain of its productions, possibly a large proportion, it is - to my mind - as good as professional.

Its depth of team and its casting around for local Warwickshire talent mean that it has actors, many of whom (as their CVs will attest) have appeared for the company over many years. Others are new – very fresh- discoveries. Some youngsters.

The behind stage work, the preliminary sketching, the thinking behind, the scheduling of rehearsal, the work on individuals, the administrative backup, appear second to none. Their repertoire is challenging; and by God they can act.

It’s easy to enjoy amateur theatre for what it is – a clutter of spirited local thesps rolling up their sleeves and having a go. But south Warwickshire drama is not a case of Karaoke. With Kenilworth’s dependable Talisman, the improved Priory, arguably Coventry’s Criterion, all meriting respect and sometimes hitting the jackpot, the Loft is the Prince of companies. It delivers on target.

I recently praised, in a few brief words, Steve Smith’s staging of The History Boys at the Loft: the set wasn’t much (what Leeds-Sheffield classroom is?) but the vigour, energy and intelligence of the staging shone and the cast without exception excelled. I hope I shall have an equal chance to enthuse about Smith’s Privates on Parade, which runs alongside the Leam from 9-19 July.

Two of that cast were vital to Artistic Director Tim Willis’s current production for the Loft of  Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood: Phil Reynolds, who made a triumphant, emotive job of Hector, the Richard Griffiths role, and who here proved dottier than all the inhabitants of Llaregub (‘Buggerall’) put together, not just as the Reverend Eli Jenkins, wonderfully decanting his verse from a pulpit balcony (Richard Moore’s set for the diminutive Welsh village, right down to the pink walls alluded to in the text, was masterly; with almost unforgiveable economy and insight he delivered a medley of lintels and balustrades, almost visceral grey-painted brick, different sized doorways and seaside clutter, splendid to light, atmospheric to perform on); but as delicious Willy Nilly, Kate Willis and David Pinner as Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owenthe skittering postman who reads up his charges’ missives as if they were free on the internet, and lunatic, jabbering Lord Cut Glass with his clocks. The last was surely a candidate for plum character of this ‘Play for Voices’ – though Dylan Thomas has come up with nary a dud in the whole village.

Making marriage work. Kate Willis and David Pinner as Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen

The other History Boys veteran was Sue Moore, the alternate narrator (Second Voice), who managed such a commanding, and different, Miss Lintott (‘My nickname’s Totty; slightly ironic, don’t you think?’) from Frances de la Tour’s. She will direct Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Loft in June, and her pedigree includes Gertrude in Hamlet, the ineluctable Miss Shepherd in another Bennett play, The Lady in the Van, and the Coral Browne role in Bennett’s Single Spies. She is a strikingly polished performer, with a winning stage presence, forceful where needed, who shaped Thomas’s tongue-twisting lines with an appealing warmth, wit and understanding.

The so-called First Voice was Jeremy Heynes, one of the Loft’s longstanding leads. I would have given my right arm to see him as the bumbling Simeonov-Pischik in Uncle Vanya, as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, or the (‘Well. There it is.’) Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus, let alone as blinded Gloucester in Lear. Heynes went the whole Nigel Hawthorne hog for the nearby Talisman, as an is-he-isn’t-he loony, pig-fancying King George III (Bennett again).

First Voice serves us up the whole village, nursed by the River Dewi: the Sailors Arms – the local Rovers Return - where Gus MacDonald’s Mr. Waldo, Loft debutant Richard Copperwaite’s Mog Edwards, and David Pinner’s hilariously in-your-face Cherry Owen cavort; plus Bryan Ferriman’s beautifully sympathetic, poignant, fading-voiced, touchingly lost, but – like blind moles - all-ears, Captain Cat, once an avid drinker worldwide, seems not now to make it along the street. A faint echo of Hugh Griffith, Ferriman was the Loft’s Porter (in the Scottish Play) and Bottom, but also the dominant Beggars’ Leader for Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

He seems to wrap all that experience up for the good, sad Captain, who has a past (‘Oh, my dead dears’) but little present and seemingly no future. Equalling Peter O’Toole (in the 1972 Burton-O’Toole film; David Jason was Nogood Boyo) is as much an achievement as Heynes taking on Richard Burton (the benchmark recording, as Burton’s 1954 first BBC take was the benchmark performance).

Amid ‘the small town, starless and bible-black’, ‘the slow, black, crowblack fishingboatbobbing sea’, and the staggering unfolding imagery (‘the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields’) Heynes, eschewing Burton’s Welsh burr, gives us the girls, too, ‘her lonely loving hotwaterbottled body’, or Bryan Ferriman's profoundly moving, blind Captain Catthe women all a-screech and -babble in Morgan’s general shop: Mary MacDonald’s sniffy, opinionated Mrs. Butcher Beynon and Mrs. Dai Bread 1 (Llareggub folk seem to go in for more than one marriage: doughty Loft veteran Anne Wood, who with her two dead hubbies, Mr. Ogmore and Mr. Pritchard (Reynolds and Pinner again) provides, as Mrs. Ogmore Pritchard, fresh as a daisy, one of the umpteen hoots of the evening.

Poignant amid his memories - Bryan Ferriman's profoundly moving, blind Captain Cat

Of course, it’s all about death as well as life: even the youngsters in this cavalcade have the dreaded skull knocking on their doors. ‘O please to keep Thy lovely eye / On all poor creatures born to die’, prays Reynold’s rhyming couplet cleric. Polly Garter (Dawn Morris, gorgeously believable in all her four roles, tender, havable, innocent then the frosty Mrs. Pugh) seems to have babies almost as a way of putting off the grim reaper; but her little Willy Wee, like so many in this charade, is long dead, dead, dead.

Heynes, the village referee, who affectionately shares with us the naughty bits (‘seventeen and never been sweet in the grass ho ho’) saves his very best in the closing stages of this spoken virtual opera, where the evening gloaming gathers and blinds are drawn (‘The windy town is a hill of windows’), the cobbles are no longer sunlit cockled and the village feels like a graveyard that has but briefly woken up.

If anything helps Jeremy Heynes and the entire cast of Under Milk Wood, it is Dave Barclay’s lighting plot: pinpoint-perfect at every turn. The transitions from focused spotlight – on Heynes frontstage right, on Mr. and Mrs. Pugh bickering stage left, gathered up from below with a miraculous sinister white light (ghostly again), on Ferriman’s mournful Cat’s tragic yearning for Kate Willis’s Rosie Probert - somehow epitomised by the way his isolated figure is picked out on his lonely balcony –  to a bathed full stage, the subtle ultramarine that creeps along the street like an escapee from Hamlet’s ghost scene or Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, the fusions of different coloured light to create a welter of different but specific effects: these are what lend Llaregub its alternately liberated and spooky atmosphere.

We get glimpses of Llareggub Hill and maybe Donkey Down in the projections on the cyclorama, whether by Richard Moore or others: some (the sketches) work impressively; the straight photos slightly lose their oomph with not quite intelligible repetition; rather it is Moore’s huddled, peopled street front that holds the attention constantly.

Gus MacDonald brings his rich, bluff persona and versatility to another clutch of characters. Already impressive as one of the drowned voices, he’s great fun as Organ Morgan, whose wife can get no joy out of him as Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue blazes out of the church. (Phil Spencer’s sound design was rather effective by being restrained; thus the haunting voices of children, when they emerge, were like more ghosts – those of Aberfan, perhaps; the youngest child we see is Zoe Chamberlain’s Gossamer Beynon and Lily Smalls, entertaining Nogood Boyo in the washhouse, as Moore has it, and already on the edge of self-discovery.) Here little ditty: ‘Where you get that smile, Lil? Never you mind, girl. Nobody loves you. That's what you think.’ was charm itself.

Abandoning Organ, MacDonald plots to cut up children and serve up rats and mice (‘Monday, otter. Tuesday, shrews.’) with equal salivating relish (as Butcher Beynon); and creates even more of a catchy character out of randy Mr. Waldo, to whom any age is fair game. (Waldo’s ditty near the end was almost Shakespearian in its impact here.) Dawn Morris’s Polly, as yearnable over as her Myfanwy Price (Mog Edward’s dream girl, ‘dressmaker and sweetshop-keeper’) would do nicely enough, but she is already rolling in the Wood with half of the rest of the village.

If any two actors stood out for me, reaching a super-class from an ensemble that is without exception first-class, it was David Pinner and Richard Copperwaite. Copperwaite’s aching Mog Edwards, and then Sindbad Sailors, fantasising hopelessly as he polishes the tankards, were creations of astonishing, touching beauty. How can anyone be so pure, even in Wales? One might think Little Britain, were not the characters he creates so painfully, heartbreakingly poignant.

He confirmed to perfection another thing about this cast – the Welsh accents were scintillating, from everybody, and if they worked up or acquired their own – Tim Willis may have steered them –Anne Wood, wonderful as the double-hubby Mrs. Organ-Morgan they managed the extraordinary effect of producing a variety, as if seaside Llareggub were a crossroads of Cardigan and Carmarthen, Port Talbot and Monmouth accents (as surely it might be: Mr. Waldo, for instance, grew up in Pembroke) as much as Istanbul is a medley of Turkish, Arabic and Balkan. This rich, amusing variety made a massive difference to the impact of the text.

Anne Wood, wonderful as the double-hubby Mrs. Organ-Morgan, with Phil Reynolds and David Pinner as her ghostly dead spouses.


When Copperwaite lurched back to English – the only one apart from the two principal Voices to deliver an ‘objective’ report on the village as the Voice of a Guide-book (‘the three quaint streets [liberal use of pinkwash] and few narrow by-lanes and scattered farmsteads that constitute this small, decaying backwater of life’ whose natives ‘possess a salty individuality’, it only underlined his patent talents. A newcomer to the Loft, he is quite some acquisition. Presumably a Southampton University alumnus, he was previously in two Criterion productions, including David Copperfield.

David Pinner trained professionally as an actor (Central St. Martin’s, then plain Central) and it showed. Willis seems to have instilled a particularly high – again, professional – standard of focused gesturing into this polished cast. A major difference between amateur and professional is often that gestures are random, less than perfectly timed, unprepared, and not finished off.  This team had almost shamefully high standards. But Pinner had it all. The way he laughed, sporadically, uncontrollably, naughtily, as Cherry Owen, barracking and teasing and relishing his wife, was all carefully controlled, planned, devised.

His humbled Mr. Pugh, the henpecked schoolmaster, was the very reverse: outwardly devoted, blissfully devising poisons the Three Witches would envy to polish off his ghastly Hausfrau. Then blossoming again with rustic bluntness as Farmer Utah Watkins. MacDonald, Reynolds and Pinner all shifted between characters with gorgeous aplomb. And Dawn Morris was a match for them all.

So framed by the effectively static Heynes, perched on his grandfather’s stool, a voice of lulling charm, visionary expressiveness, unfettered range and invention, the Loft’s Under Milk Wood was a treasure: one to set, doubtless, alongside the new BBC Wales centenary television adaptation. Dylan Thomas (1914-53) was dead at just turned 39, even before the first Burton version was broadcast. What a loss; but what treasures (‘And death shall have no dominion’, a poem that out-Eliots Eliot) he left behind.

More than that. ‘Amateur means “for the love of”, writes the Loft’s Chairman, Sue Wilkinson; ‘We can be proud of our true amateur status whilst we produce and perform to the best professional standards we can.’

Well, as she might hope, no concessions are needed. The Loft company, here at least, can be judged on wholly professional standards. And it passed the test easily.

If it is ‘one heck of a theatre’ to be part of, as Wilkinson claims, the reasons are more than the companionship of rehearsal and the fun of thespian aspiration. It is because the finished results are - at best, as here - first rate. The result: a top class company, by professional, not just amateur, standards. To 17-05-14

Roderic Dunnett

Betrayal by Harold Pinter runs at the Loft Wed 10-Sat 14 June. Privates on Parade from Wed 9 to Sat 19 July.

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