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A Turn Around Town: Under Milk Wood

by on 18 September 2017

Under Milk Wood

by Dylan Thomas

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 23rd September

Review by Matthew Grierson

Tucked to one side in the foyer of Hampton Hill Theatre are two glass cabinets of souvenirs from Wales – a flag, seashells, toy boats and wooden gulls, as well as a travel guide and a copy of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood – which give a nostalgic, touristic impression of somewhere remote in time and space.

There is always a danger that the play too, beloved by so many, and the production itself – nicely packaged in a Bible-black-box studio and tricked out with trinkets including watercolour views, fishing nets and a washing line strung with smalls – becomes a souvenir, bringing a doubly distant Llareggub to the suburban studio space.  Director Paul Turnbull even says rather glibly in a programme note that he saw the play as one of ‘quick characters who didn’t need masses of back story’.

 

But the text – naturally – and the performance – thankfully – go deeper.  After the stillness of the narrator’s prologue, we are in the depths, both literal and metaphorical, of Captain Cat’s memory with his drowned shipmates and lost love, Rosie Probert.  This depth is stirringly animated, the dead dancing the Captain into a whirlpool like Eliot’s Phlebas.  (After this episode, though, Cat rather oddly strolls off into the back with a sureness of step that seems one of very few directorial missteps in this staging.)  Most of the first half continues the ebb between surface and depth, conjuring the dreams, desires and ghosts of the Llareggubbians into the harbour shaped by the audience, and this strategy effectively transforms Thomas’ ‘play for voices’ into a stage piece, an effect only disrupted by the peculiar decision to retain an ‘On Air’ sign among the stage paraphernalia, its red presence a niggling reminder of the play’s doubly vocal and visual quality.

Fortunately, in keeping with Thomas’ verse, which moves musically rather than metrically, the action on the stage is constant, so there is much else to keep my eye on.  Even as the townsfolk sleep, they stand and lie like a row of ‘quiet dominoes’, and in their very particularity each character becomes universal.  Indeed, the Anglo-Welsh vernacular enables the poet to name them as they are known to the rest of the community – ‘Butcher Beynon’, ‘Evans the Death’, ‘Polly Garter’ or ‘Nogood Boyo’, for instance – so they are all themselves surface and depth.  Actor Jim Trimmer is aptly enough named to be one of their number, and he casts a watchful, wistful eye (blind or otherwise) over proceedings from opposite corners, in the roles of Captain Cat and Sinbad respectively, among others.

Whether Cat himself or the ‘voice’ provides narration, it frames and complements most of the action of the play, working most effectively when they talk over the silent comings and goings of the townsfolk – the postman’s rounds, schoolyard games – and the cast weave their way through the words to chime in occasionally with a line of their own where required.  Only on a couple of occasions does this not quite work, when the text calls attention to something that is manifestly not shown on stage – Jack Black not wearing a nightshirt tied at his ankles, or narrator Jenny Hobson inviting a seated audience to ‘Come closer’, but then backing away.

Hobson, in the unenviable position of having to equal Thomas’ script while exorcising the ghost of Richard Burton’s performance, does well to acquit herself, the quiet, presiding spirit among the fleshier creatures that live under Milk Wood; once or twice, though, she stumbles on the poet’s mischievous sprung rhythm, and hesitates over the pronunciation of ‘Llareggub’, which can fox the rest of the cast in places as well.  But among them all there seem to be no egregious offences against the Welsh accent, and only as Myfanwy Price does Linda Sirker’s voice resemble that of Hi-de-Hi ’s Gladys Pugh, which even then I sense is characterisation rather than caricature.

Indeed, that we can distinguish one character’s voice from another when each of the cast, Hobson excepted, is required to assume the role of half a dozen or so named parts is testament to their versatility.  They convey these differences impressively through a combination of tone, mannerism and wardrobe, meaning that, through the course of the play, there are more costume changes than a Shirley Bassey concert.  These transformations are worked fluently into the rhythm of the piece, all the actors falling deftly and expertly into the appropriate personae, but special mention must be made of Tom Nunan, who effects sharp volte-faces between the endearing kick-stepping postman Mr Willy Nilly and verse-speaking Rev. Eli Jenkins and the twisted precision of Jack Black and wannabe poisoner Mr Pugh.  Along with the latter grotesques, Zoë Arden’s turn as the formidable Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, forcing the ghosts of her husbands to recite the health regimens she imposed on them, show that there is more to Thomas’s – and Turnbull’s – vision of Llareggub than rosy-eyed nostalgia, and this positions the town midway between Joyce’s Dublin and The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vaysey.

The mixture of tones – ‘soppy-stern’, perhaps, to quote an unlikely inheritor of Thomas’ craft – is essential to the play, and we move from the music of the spheres above Milk Wood to Gwenny’s kissing rhyme in the schoolyard under it, or from the grand declarations of love to the parsimonious gossip in Mog Edwards’ love letter to Myfanwy Price.  There is balance, too, to the population of Llarregub, so to match Mrs O-P’s brace of spooked ghosts are Mr Dai Bread’s pair of lively wives, Arden again as a sensual fortune-teller leading her counterpart, Sirker, bustling ‘like a jelly’ after her and her crystal ball as she spins her destiny.  Meanwhile, Edz Barrett is himself two husbands in one man – Cherry Owen sober and Cherry Owen drunk – and an equally capable housewife, Mrs Floyd, when wrapped in a shawl.  And then there is the parade of Waldo’s would-be wives, rotated through his hand at the altar while he jilts each of them.  Stock-still and terrified here, Jeremy Gill later returns as Lord Cut-Glass, unbuttoned and circling the space dottily as he surveys the clocks that until now I have not noticed hanging from the curtain rail above the audience, foregrounding the ‘tick-tock’ that underlies the play.

MilkWood1

The constant momentum is necessary to follow all the lives lived under Milk Wood as a single day turns (the play’s most evident debt to Ulysses), because the characters always work in relation to one another, their stories going round and round but remaining unresolved.  As Myfanwy silently scans a love letter from Mog she faces one row of the audience, while Mog himself declaims its contents to the audience lining the other wall, but as the pair turn and back towards one another, they exit before their love is consummated in bumped behinds.  Similarly star-crossed are Sinbad and young schoolmarm Gossamer Beynon, the publican carousing with his patrons until breaking off to stare as the object of his affections forces herself to walk past him.  Even at the play’s close, when Waldo lies with Polly Garter in Milk Wood and she loves him back, her own mind is in the depths with Captain Cat’s, remembering her lost love Willy Wee, as she has done at points throughout the piece in reveries beautifully sung by Helen Geldert.

Opening and closing with the drowned, the play signals that the lives of Llarregub go round and round, and on, even beyond death, and though the play has to end, it does so with a ‘goodbye – but just for now’ in the words of the Rev. Jenkins.  Perhaps this is where our affection for the play begins, because we know we can always go back and read, listen to or watch it once more, as night turns again to day, revisiting a beloved town that no trip to Wales as a tourist will ever take us to.

Matthew Grierson
September 2017
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