Under Milk Wood, Shaftesbury Arts Centre

“IT’s a privilege to be involved in the production and to be speaking so many of Dylan Thomas’s great lines – although it’s been a real challenge to learn them,” said Elizabeth Woodgate, a newcomer to Shaftesbury Arts Centre stage who was the Second Voice in this powerful production of Thomas’s theatrical masterpiece.

You know what she means. You sit there in the darkened auditorium and you revel anew in the waterfall of poetic imagery, wicked wit, backstabbing gossip and sheer Welsh word wizardry that pours out of every character (and admire the actors who have learned all those words!)

Shut your eyes and you may recall earlier performances (if you are my age, you probably summon up Richard Burton’s glorious voice in the famous opening lines). It is the epitome, the zenith of Welsh verbal artistry – and it is one of the great challenges of the theatre to stage a play that was originally written for the radio.

Congratulations to director Jerome Swan (who also stepped in at a late stage to play blind Captain Cat) for a production that was visually interesting but yet absolutely faithful to the dominance of the human voice in this story of 24 hours in a small seaside Welsh town, Llareggub (that’s bugger all backwards, in case you didn’t notice).

It’s a small town like any other, with its seething jealousies and panting love affairs, lazy slackers and dreaming oldies, lonely unloved men seeking the comfort of a soft body in the night and their peevish, whining wives.

Dylan Thomas created memorable characters for his archetypes – pretty Polly Garter with her babies and memories of all the men she has loved, NoGood Boyo whose most exciting catch is a whalebone corset, Dai Bread and his two wives, comfortably round Mrs Dai Bread 1 and slender gypsy Mrs Dai Bread 2, the lovebirds who will never marry, Mog Edwards the haberdasher and prim Myfanwy Price, and chilly Gossamer Beynon the schoolmistress, who dreams of passion beneath her elegant frock.

This is the ultimate ensemble piece – there are no stars, no leading characters, so it seems a bit invidious to single out particular performances but Carl Davies and Elizabeth Woodgate provided richly voiced knowing and insight, David Grierson really played the harmonium as Organ Morgan (great to see David acting rather than at the keyboards in the orchestra pit), Chris Bailward had great fun as lustful Waldo, PC Rees and his useful helmet and the romantic Mog, Joni Clowrey sang Polly’s sad song beautifully, Janet Botterill was suitably dreadful as Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard with her two dead husbands and Jerome Swan brought tears to my eyes as Captain Cat remembering his beloved Rosie.

The simple multi-level set encompassed the small world of Llareggub and the multi-tasking cast brought every character to vivid life. The little Bell Street theatre, packed for all three performances, resounded with well-deserved and prolonged applause.

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