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Watermill Theatre - Under Milk Wood

25th October to 4th November 2017

Review from Newbury Theatre.

How to portray about 40 characters on stage with just six actors? With the appearance of Lynn Hunter as Captain Cat, it was clear that this was going to be… unusual, and so this joyful gender-fluid, age-fluid production turned out to be.

In the ‘starless and bible-black’ night of Llareggub, light gradually appears on Alistair McGowan, the Voice (First and Second), seated on a swing on the minimalist set – some wisps of cloth representing sky, sea, whatever. And McGowan is wonderful, his deep voice smoothly working its way around the rolling cadences of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, slowing down for emphasis, speeding up in the staccato list of Lord Cut-Glass’s clocks. Is Richard Burton unsurpassable in this role? For me, McGowan equalled him.

The production is well suited to the Watermill’s intimate space, with the audience on three sides and at times surrounded by voices; spookily, as with Captain Cat’s dream reminiscences of his drowned shipmates.

Of the other five in the cast, three are recent drama graduates. What a great way to start an acting career, adapting to a range of characters by changes in voice tones, facial expressions and gaits. All five were impressively good. The highlights for me were Steffan Cennydd’s Mae Rose Cottage, lasciviously draping himself against the set, and Eli Jenkins with his litany of Welsh names; Ross Ford as the inscrutable Mr Pugh and the athletic Jack Black; Lynn Hunter as everything; Charlotte O’Leary as the terrifying Mrs Ogmore-Prichard and the yearning Gossamer Beynon (‘soft as Eve and sharp as sciatica’); Caroline Sheen as Polly Garter and Rosie Probert (and the amazing face-change for Lord Cut-Glass). The children’s scene (Boys boys boys) with all of them was full of energy and the pace of the whole show, directed by Brendan O’Hea was impressive.

Dylan Thomas’s poetry in Under Milk Wood is always a delight to hear, and it was clearly appreciated by the full house at the Watermill. What a pity it has such a short run.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

The word made flesh

Alistair McGowan steps up to the task of delivering Dylan Thomas' superb narration in short run at The Watermill

Under Milk Wood, at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Wednesday, October 25, to Saturday, November 4

The stage is empty for this production of Under Milk Wood, the misty grey backcloth depicting an endless vista of Welsh hills.

Throughout the performance, the skies lighten, but at the beginning, for that of course is where we must begin, there is only dark, gradually lightening as a figure emerges. It is Alistair McGowan, stepping forward to bring us the descriptive, no holds barred, astonishing torrent of words written by Dylan Thomas about a day in the life of the multitude of characters who live in the small seaside town of Llareggub (do I have to remind you to read it backwards?).

The dialogue is accompanied by sounds enhancing the action – gulls cry. dogs bark, cocks crow, there is the sound of movement over the cobbled streets of the town – and as the characters appear and speak from all around the theatre, the audience is made to feel (Lord help us!) part of Llareggub's everyday life.

The cast bring these different characters to vibrant, colourful reality, always with that eminently practical way the Welsh have of viewing – and discussing – their neighbours.

For there is much to talk about in Llareggub.

There is young Polly Carter (Caroline Sheen), popular and accommodating with many a man, but singing movingly of Willie, her dead love; Mr Pugh (Ross Ford) – is he planning to kill his wife?; blind Captain Cat (Lynn Hunter), grieving for those who are gone, and Mrs Ogmore-Prichard (Charlotte O'Leary), busily bossing her two tame husbands. We must not forget the Reverend Eli Jenkins (Steffan Cennydd), heralding the day with memorable verse.

Each actor metamorphoses seamlessly, extraordinarily into one of nearly 40 other characters by such simple actions as the flick of a shawl or the transforming of a cap into a bowl.

McGowan treads the lines made memorable by Richard Burton well, making them covertly Welsh without going down the road of becoming an absolute boyo. Quietly and unobtrusively, he holds everything together and there is little to fault in this production, directed by Brendan O'Hea.

If ever there was a play that everyone should see at some point in their lives, it is Under Milk Wood, in order to enjoy the unrivalled, vivid, imagination-provoking deluge of words from a master of his craft.


Review from The Telegraph.

Alistair McGowan does a sterling job in Under Milk Wood at The Watermill

three stars
Dylan Thomas was amusingly caustic about the Coronation. Arriving in London from New York on June 3 1953, he recalled his progress through miles of festive detritus in a letter which confirmed that his descriptive powers remained in rude health even as his body wilted under the toxic influence of drink and drugs.

“I crawled as early as sin in the chilly weeping morning through the city’s hushed hangover,” he mock-rhapsodised, noting “all the spatter and bloody gravy and giant mouse-mess that go to show how a loyal and phlegmatic people [...] enjoyed themselves like hell the day before.” He died in New York on November 9.

Thomas’s final opus, Under Milk Wood, the “play for voices” that set the seal on his reputation as a literary giant of the Welsh valleys, has, then, endured as long as the reign of Elizabeth II. When we read it now, or listen to it (most likely in the BBC recordings made with Richard Burton) or, on occasion, see it on stage, a treat currently being granted us in Newbury, it’s hard not to regard it as a museum piece in which the statues magically come to life. 

Described by the author as “prose with blood pressure”, it eavesdrops on the fictional seaside town of Llareggub, across a daily cycle from sleep to wake and back again to slumber. It brims over with childlike, wide-eyed wonder and, for all its larky, at times teasingly erotic, verbal comedy, a wise-old-man’s melancholy awareness of mortality.

The dramatis personae are haunted by memories, stalked by ghosts, indeed some of them are the departed (“Come on up, boys, I’m dead”) and this swooping bird’s-eye-view of a close-knit community (the town’s name reads as “bugger all” backwards) feels like an anticipatory epitaph for a whole way of life.

True, you may well find in parts of Wales many vestigial traces of the gossiping neighbourliness, the daffy eccentricity too, that Dylan quasi-documents. Yet to lose yourself in Under Milk Wood is to mourn, by default, an imparted sense of communal identity. This is a cohesive society, the poem suggests; however “unreal” its characters – blind “Captain Cat”, postman “Willy-Nilly”, sweetshop lady Myfanwy Price, dozens more – they are tangible to each other, out of reach to us.

It seems to me that British theatre has never quite known what to do with Under Milk Wood. It didn’t usher in a reign of verse drama despite much flag-waving for it at the time (“The greatest drama is poetic drama,” T S Eliot wrote in 1929, and tried to practise what he preached). The Beatles were openly indebted to Thomas (Bessie Bighead, “alone until she dies”, is, you might say, the town’s Eleanor Rigby).

But the combination of the Fifties “kitchen-sink” revolution, the decline of deference and rise too of an inverted snobbery towards the phrase poetical left the tide going out on Thomas’s experiment. Our playwrights tend to show us how things fall apart, not hark melodiously back to a time when the centre held. Brendan O’Hea’s committed, intelligent revival brings Under Milk Wood back to the Watermill – which opened with it in 1967 – and reveals it in all its magnificence and flaws.

Thomas’s word-music is beautiful and overwhelming: you may latch onto salient phrases (I loved “the chimneys’ slow upflying snow”) while others slip past. In bible-black roll-neck jumper, Alistair McGowan Houdini-escapes his reputation for celebrity impressions, performing a sterling, serious job in the sage narratorial role, exhorting us to listen, summoning the townsfolk from the darkness.

Another five cast members (among them a highly promising Steffan Cennydd, newly graduated from Guildhall, a Richard Burton prize to his name too) dart around the auditorium and dive impressively from character to character.

If you can’t always see the wood for the trees, it’s more than the sum of its parts too. The bravura of its ambition still throws down a gauntlet which our poets and playwrights, confronting the current mood of national uncertainty, might be more inclined than ever to pick up.

It was to Carol Ann Duffy that Rufus Norris turned this year for the Brexit response My Country, and the big state-of-the-nation plays on the National’s stage of late have had a decidedly (if not always satisfactorily) poetical tint to them. Is it possible that, as with the beginning so with the end of Elizabeth’s reign, new “plays for voices” will emerge from Thomas’s shadow?


Review from The Observer.

Sure-footed shapeshifting

Six actors play 37 roles in a beautifully balanced production of Dylan Thomas’s classic play for voices

four stars
By 1953, the poet Dylan Thomas was ready to turn to writing large-scale dramas. He died at the end of that year, shortly after completing Under Milk Wood, subtitled “A Play for Voices” and first broadcast on radio in January 1954. In this vivid poetic-dramatic evocation of the variegated population of a small Welsh seaside town, Thomas strands humour and death-tinged melancholy through monologues, dialogues, vignettes and songs. Llareggub and its population spring to vibrant life, so intensely particular that they achieve universality.

Brendan O’Hea’s direction sure-footedly balances poetry and drama. On a bare stage, Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting seems almost a palpable entity surrounding the characters. Birdsong, children singing, the sough of “the jollyrogered sea”, Gary Dixon’s sounds entwine Olly Fox’s music; they shape the space. Pale cloths hang from the flies; their scalloped edges etch shifting contours that suggest now hills, now clouds, now both together in Anna Kelsey’s haunting design.

The blending that characterises the setting finds an echo in the cross-gender casting: six actors shapeshift 37 roles. Only Alistair McGowan is stable as the Voice, narrating the town into being. In the “bible-black” darkness of the beginning, other voices stream from balcony and stalls to join his. Llareggub’s inhabitants rise from the auditorium as if summonsed.

Characters are everyday-believable yet of mythic dimensions – like Lynn Hunter’s blind Captain Cat, salted with sea memories and tears. Using subtle movements and minimal props, each of the actors morphs roles in the space of a breath. Steffan Cennydd, languishing against a stage pillar, is Mae Rose Cottage, who longs to “sin till I blow up”. A shift to upright and he instantly transforms into the Reverend Eli Jenkins. This witty juxtaposition is one of many. Ross Ford is willowy as lovelorn Myfanwy Price, spine-fused rigid as aspiring wife-murderer Mr Pugh. Among their multiple roles, Charlotte O’Leary’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard and Caroline Sheen’s Polly Garter are particularly fine.

Fifty years ago, Under Milk Wood was the Watermill’s first professional production (it featured the young David Jason). If, in 50 years’ time, the theatre mounts another version, it will be hard put to better O’Hea’s envisioning.


Review from The Times.

three stars
Those silvery, sparkling words never stop tumbling out. Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices” is so relentlessly tangled and extravagant that you can only marvel at Alistair McGowan’s ability to deliver prodigious chunks of it without more than a couple of stumbles.

Anyone who takes on the role of narrator (or “First Voice”) is doomed to live in the shadow of Richard Burton. Still, McGowan’s lightly accented, quizzical tone provides a solid anchor for an agile ensemble performance of what is, ultimately, a play that never really works as a play.

Had it been performed in its original home, on the radio, McGowan, an endlessly gifted impressionist, might have been able to play all the many male parts. Instead Brendan O’Hea’s imaginative production shares out the roles, regardless of gender. So Lynn Hunter portrays, among others, Captain Cat, the sea salt listening to the voices of the drowned, while Steffan Cennydd’s charges include the music-obsessed Organ Morgan and Mae Rose Cottage, the winsome young thing who whiles away the hours drawing lipstick around her nipples.

The mixing of the sexes adds an extra layer of ambiguity to a dreamlike narrative. And the Watermill, with its bucolic, intimate space, makes an ideal setting for Thomas’s fictional Llareggub (you have to read the name backward to get the ribald joke). When the theatre opened 50 years ago Under Milk Wood was part of its repertoire, so this is a homecoming of sorts. Anna Kelsey’s minimalist set, augmented by Wayne Dowdeswell’s ghostly lighting, draws us into a womb-like space, bathed in blue. Gary Dixon’s sound effects ensure that voices dart at us from all directions.

Caroline Sheen’s Mrs Pugh, with her pinched expressions, has a slate-gray soul — you can hardly blame her husband (the memorably glowering Ross Ford) for dreaming of doing away with her. Sheen also plays an understated Polly Garter, while Charlotte O’Leary flits effortlessly between gargoyles headed by the hygiene-obsessed guesthouse proprietor, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard.

The bawdy humour is still a delight. Even so, for all the subtlety of the performances, you can’t help feeling sated with Thomas’s over-ripe metaphors as you struggle to keep track of the cavalcade of cornershop humanity.


Review from British Theatre Guide.

The Watermill Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary year and its very first professional production in 1967 was Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, so it is fitting that the theatre should stage this superb revival.

Anna Kelsley’s simple design with hanging white drapes suggesting the clouds over the imaginary Welsh seaside village of Llareggub — if read backwards it shows Thomas’s humour — is the setting for this lyrical poetic story of 24 hours in this close-knit community where we learn about their lives, dreams and hear all the gossip.

Originally designed for the radio, this “play for voices” is assuredly directed by Brendan O’Hea who has lovingly brought the play to the stage and is blessed by a stellar cast to work with.

Alistair McGowan is outstanding as First Voice who has the Herculean task of narrating the play. It is a joy to listen to his expressive voice as the story unfolds.

This is very much an ensemble production with the highly talented cast playing both male and female parts, seamlessly moving between the sexes and the characters, each one impressively created.

The play begins in the dark. “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobbled streets silent…”

As the lights come up, we see McGowan sitting on a swing and so we are drawn into the daily world of the inhabitants.

Lynn Hunter brings a forlorn presence in the shape of blind Captain Cat who remembers his dead shipmates with great sadness. By contrast, she is a sassy Mrs Dai Bread Two and Mrs Organ Morgan who is driven mad by her husband’s constant playing of the church organ.

Recently graduated Steffan Cennydd is touching as the Reverend Eli Jenkins saying his morning and evening prayers to the village and is author of the White Book.

Amongst other parts, he plays the lovesick Sinbad Sailors and the nubile Mae Rose Cottage and the obsessed Organ Morgan all with poise.

There is much humour in the play including the rivalry between the droll schoolmaster Mr Pugh (Ross Ford) who is plotting to poison his domineering and repulsive wife, powerfully played by Caroline Sheen.

She also portrays the eccentric Lord Cutglass whose life is dominated by 66 clocks in his house, each showing a different time.

Running the local guesthouse is Mrs Ogmore Pritchard (Charlotte O’Leary) who is so house-proud that she never lets anyone stay and as Mrs Willy Nilly she steams open letters to find out all the gossip.

There is so much to enjoy in this highly delightful production including some beautiful a cappella harmony singing and atmospheric lighting by Wayne Dowdeswells and Gary Dixon’s striking soundscape.

The entire company richly deserved the long and enthusiastic audience’s applause. Highly recommended.


There are reviews from The Stage ("a mischievous, wistful lullaby to be enjoyed as the evenings darken" - 4 stars), The Reviews Hub ("expect to laugh, a lot... an energetic, electric and, above all, a fun portrayal" - 4.5 stars)