Review: Under Milk Wood

Date: 13/05/2014

Conceived as a radio play over 60 years ago, Under Milk Wood has a sprawling cast of unlikely characters with even less likely names; the denizens of Llareggub unburden their memories, hopes, lusts and dreams to us over the course of the day – an experience so woozily overwhelming it’s like drowning in a hot toddy.

There’s blind old seadog Captain Cat, haunted by drowned fellow seafarers and lost loves; Mrs Dai Bread 1 and Mrs Dai Bread 2, competing for the affections of, well, Mr Dai Bread; the lovelorn Polly Garter (Hedydd Dylan) singing beautifully of her lost Willie. Like a surreal soap opera, part Ambridge, part Royston Vasey – with dashes of Rawlinson End – their everyday dramas and yearnings play out in a tumble of verbosity, accent and nursery-rhyme rhythm.

With Under Milk Wood it’s as if Thomas poured a career’s worth of lyrical lexis and rhythmic constructions into two short hours. Years in the making, it is as dense as laverbread. 100 years since Thomas’ birth and 60 years on from the first broadcast of the play, it’s a perfect time to reassess this oddity.

Thomas’ most famous work is funny, perhaps funnier than usual in this new production by Everyman founder Terry Hands. But there’s also a strong seam of melancholy running through it, the bittersweetness of life, love, longing and loss. It’s also possible to discern a lament for simpler times too – and joyful tributes to the earthy countryside, a kind of anti-Ted Hughes.

Owen Teale under milk wood

Bringing this maelstrom of sex and silliness to life is a wonderful ensemble cast, led by Owen Teale as First Voice, mellifluous and lilting, while Christian Patterson as Second Voice is more fruity. No-one misses a step, but Teale owns the wonderful set that has the audience looking down on a diorama of the Welsh seaside village.

We take for granted that actors will not fluff, nor dry. The mastery of the florid language here is both natural and exceptional, rather more sing-songy and playful than might be familiar. The BBC’s famed, posthumous broadcast of Under Milk Wood featured Richard Burton’s musical baritone forming one of the most wonderful combinations of word and voice in the English language. While the text is very much the core here, despite the stunning set and amusing physicality, Hands’ production doesn’t attempt to copy the emphasis and syllables of the 1954 reading, but breathes a little more, allowing for little grace notes to develop here and there – and the cast to foment funny asides.

As a result this production of Under Milk Wood is a little less dizzying, but it’s no less intoxicating. By the end the audience might wish it could spend more time with this cast of misfits from a Welsh village that speaks to us, at length and depth, of bygone times and never-were places. Under Milk Wood retains a thrilling hint of magic, as if its rolling sentences could conjure up a little of Llareggub simply through their incantation.

Under Milk Wood
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 24 May