Life & Culture

Theatre review: Under Milk Wood

With a cast of 14, this feels like a return to pre-pandemic theatre


Under Milk Wood by Thomas, , Writer - Dylan Thomas, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set and Costume Designer - Merle Hensel, Lighting Designer - Tim Lutkin, Movement Director - Imogen Knight, The National Theatre, Olivier Stage, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson

There have been glimmers of theatre’s return, one of the brightest being Yasmin Joseph’s new play J’Ouvert at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The second show in producer Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge West End season showcasing new talent is a four-hander mash-up of friendship, race, black British history and soca music, all set during the Notting Hill Carnival of 2017.

But the National’s revival of Under Milk Wood with a cast of of 14 led by Michael Sheen and featuring such stage stars as Sian Phillips and Karl Johnson is as close as we’ve got to theatre that makes few if any compromises to Covid, except the socially distanced audience.

Written for radio, Dylan Thomas’s script was the poet’s final work before he died in 1953 in New York a few days after his 39th birthday. It took him nearly ten years to write during which time he had searched for plot and form eventually setting the piece in the fictional Welsh coastal village of Llaregubb, where at night “you can hear the dew falling”. While he was still working on it, the play received an early reading at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York in the spring before Thomas’s death with the author part of the performance.

Spring is when the play is set. From midnight to midnight it conjures the residents, ghosts, seagulls and fishing boats in language as vivid as a Van Gogh painting. But for this revival Lyndsey Turner’s new production has some extra material written by Sian Owen presumably to make this “play for voices” seem like it was written for the stage. It does.

The Olivier’s auditorium has been turned into an in-the-round configuration to aid social distancing. Many will prefer this to the original cavernous design, and perhaps the National Theatre will too.

In the red carpeted middle, Karl Johnson is Richard Jenkins, a care home resident who apparently suffers from Alzheimer’s. Michael Sheen, as Jenkins’s dishevelled writer son Owain, arrives breathless and agitated as if with terrible news.

But Richard does not recognise his son. He responds best to old photographs explain the staff and so Owain resentfully flips through a photo album, jogging memories and resentments, and causing synapses and cells in Richard’s brain to spark up like old car engine until the staff and the residents morph into the people of Richard and Owain’s past. From Organ Morgan who plays his instrument to the distraction of his wife Mrs Morgan, to postman Willy Nilly, the population of the place, their relationships and betrayals solidify out of the mist of memory.

As the fevered and strung-out Owain, Sheen is magnificent, moulding the past with Thomas’s words as though they were handfuls of earth scooped from Welsh hills. Though we never really do find out the reason for his urgent visit.


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