Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Under Milk Wood – Liverpool Playhouse – 20/05/2014

Llareggub is the capital of dusk.

An eleven-strong cast make their way onto the dimly lit set where they all remain (apart from an interval) throughout the entirety of this new production by Clwyd Theatr Cymru, staged to celebrate Dylan Thomas’s centenary and the 60th anniversary of the work’s British premiere.

Thomas’s sleepy, fictional fishing village was named with a deft reversal of bugger-all, and this gives us more than a clue to what happens in the play. The comprehensive programme notes tell us that Thomas himself was “stumped by the lack of plot” but when the BBC commissioned him to complete the writing for radio they reassured him that they had no problem with that.

So a play with no narrative opens with two narrators, in an extended introduction to the location and its people. Before sunrise we are introduced to the villagers one by one as they reveal their dreaming thoughts to us. Once the sun is up they wake and play out the ordinariness of their daily lives, but the knowledge we have gained from their dreaming illuminates these episodes with additional depth of meaning, as we understand the innermost thoughts that mould and shape everything they do.

Experiencing this production is more like listening to music than watching a play, as the rhythm and colour of the words ebb and flow in the pastoral landscape. The cast not only each play multiple characters, but they also provide every other sound, from flocks of chickens and assorted other animals to the steam from a kettle, used by Willy Nilly the postman and his wife to open the mail, so that they can tell its recipients what’s inside.

Terry Hands makes a welcome return to Liverpool directing and lighting the production, and he maintains a smooth flow of syllable-perfect delivery from his team of vocally gymnastic actors. Owen Teale and Christian Patterson are the two voices that guide us from scene to scene. Other highlights are the many voices of Richard Elfyn, Sarah Harris-Davies as, among others, Rosie Probert, and Steven Meo’s mischievous milkman, postman and Organ Morgan to name but three.

Then there is Ifan Huw Dafydd, whose Captain Cat perches precariously in his rocking chair balanced high on a ledge, overlooking Martin Bainbridge’s set. An almost circular, raked platform has two curved ramps encircling it, the highest of which provides the captain’s vantage point. This enables the whole cast to remain visible on differing levels. Behind them is an upturned three dimensional representation of the village, whose cottages, terraces and fishing boats are reminiscent of the childlike sketched map that Thomas drew of Llareggub, but curled up into a circular form around which the sun slowly revolves as the dawn progresses through to dusk.

This production is a hugely affectionate and warm-hearted tribute to Dylan Thomas and it sings a love song to the land that inspired its writing. It has a dreamlike quality throughout to match its opening exposition and it is often coloured with a sharp and occasionally bawdy wit. An almost entirely Welsh cast (with just one adopted Welshman in a cover role) give an added authenticity to the music of the dialogue that rises and falls like the Welsh countryside.

This Dylan Thomas Centenary production of Under Milk Wood opened at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in February 2014 and has already played at ten other venues prior to this week’s visit to Liverpool Playhouse, where it runs until Saturday 24th May.
The tour then continues to Plymouth, Birmingham, Croyden, Cheltenham, Brighton and Richmond, where it closes on 12th July.
For more details go to

Production photograph (c) Catherine Ashmore

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