Under Milk Wood
by Dylan Thomas
October 5th - 12th, 2002
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
In-house review by Ben Etherton
Ben Etherton is a former member of the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards panel who has not yet learned his pieces for audition to the Tower acting company.
Dylan Thomas died in New York just a few days after his 39th birthday in November 1953, the result, some would say, of a life spent enjoying wine, women and song to excess. In the month before his death he had just completed a piece which had taken him, intermittently, 10 years to write.
Under Milk Wood is a play for voices (the author never intended it to be staged) and recognised the world over for the haunting lyricism of its language. It is a delicious irony that a man who spent so much of his life drinking and womanising could write such a piercingly observant and poetic piece celebrating the everyday lives of the inhabitants of a small Welsh seaside town.
The play presented many challenges for director Colin Smith, not the least of which was the high degree of concentration required by the large cast, many of whom were doubling (or more) and by stage manager Martin Brady and his assistants Tracy Henshaw and Zizi Sulkin.
Because it is written for radio, there is an absolute need for clarity, cue bite and sharp entrances and exits. Apart from one (I suspect) missed entrance, we got them from an excellent cast who were superbly marshalled by the director, his assistant Dorothy Wright and his highly efficient stage management team. It was only when the company came on to take their curtain call that you realised just how many actors had had to be choreographed onto and off the small Tower stage for this production. That was no mean feat.
The set, ingeniously I thought, used several different levels and angles to give a real sense of the hills and depths of the fictional Welsh seaside town of Llareggub (go on, spell it backwards!). I'm still not sure if the rows of houses were a painted backdrop or a series of flats at different angles, but they looked superb, and my congratulations to the very large team of set designers and constructors involved.
I was not so sure that the lighting was so successful, however. The problem was that the sky stayed black throughout the production - "starless and bible black" as the Tower programme pointedly stated on its cover - and yet the script calls for the play to start at night (excellent) but to progress through 24 hours in the life of the town and its characters. So, when we are told that it is dawn, surely we need to see some change in the sky? For a production rich in colourful rhetoric this was an incongruous and irritating decision which I, for one, was never comfortable with. The sound effects, however, were entirely right, including a Welsh male voice choir booming across the valley.
The Narrator was played by Annie Connell. This is a huge part and requires her to be on stage almost throughout. I congratulate Ms Connell on her performance. She spoke with clarity and faultless recall, and had all the necessary stage presence. Her Welsh accent, while not one hundred per cent, was convincing.
However, my first concern was in the casting of a woman in the part of the Narrator. The play is written entirely from Dylan Thomas's male perspective - much of it bringing to life rampant sexual fantasies - and I regret to say that the casting never really convinced me that the director had made a sound decision. This is no criticism of Ms Connell, but of the casting decision itself.
The wardrobe team of Mary Wright and Kate Fearnley did a great job with the cast's multiple changes of costume, However, my second concern was the narrator's outfit. She was dressed in a very modern way, no doubt to ensure that she stood apart from the other characters, and this seemed to me to get in the way somehow of her performance and I found it a rather jarring distraction.
The remainder of the cast did a marvellous job in bringing Llareggub's myriad of colourful characters to life. I particularly liked Christopher Yates's portrayal of the Guide Book, Mr Pritchard, the Rev Eli Jenkins and the First Drowned; Jonathan Norris's excellent Organ Morgan, Willy Nilly, Mr Cherry Owen and Third Drowned; Meryl Griffith's sensuous Polly Garter, beautifully sung, together with her Mrs Willy Nilly, Mrs Pugh and Third Neighbour.
The scene with Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, comically played by Denyse Macpherson, in bed with her two dead husbands Mr Ogmore, played by Chris Holmes, and Mr. Pritchard, played by Christopher Yates, was superbly choreographed using a single white sheet as the bed, and had the audience in fits of laughter.
John Morton played the key part of the blind Sea Captain convincingly. The blind old man is important because he is a natural bridge between the eye and ear for the radio listener and narrates a significant part of the action. The scene in which he describes the action while the postman Willy Nilly delivers the letters to each household was beautifully played by all involved and was a triumph of well spoken words, comedy acting and characterisation. For me this was the highlight of the evening.
This was a very disciplined and well thought out production which on the night I saw it had a deservedly near-full house. Everyone involved had obviously worked extremely hard to bring Llaruggub to life, and this production clearly showed the tremendous talents that the Tower Theatre has at its disposal.