In a year that marks both Dylan Thomas’ centenary and sixty years since Under Milk Wood was first performed, this beautiful and engaging celebration of perhaps Wales’ finest poet comes to York Theatre Royal, under the direction of Terry Hands. While very much not your average piece of theatre, it nevertheless charms and entertains from the moment the cast enter the stage.
Under Milk Wood tells the “story” – if it can be called that – of the comings and goings of the townspeople of Milk Wood, a coastal Welsh community, over the course of twenty-four hours. The show starts in the small hours of the morning before dawn breaks and climaxes in the very late evening. What little plot that exists is almost not worth telling, but it is evident that this is not a show where story is key. Instead, the audience are treated to a wide array of tiny delightful scenes, in a world where poetry is King. And it is a wonder to behold.
The cast are led by Voice One and Voice Two (played well by Owen Teale and Christian Patterson), who set the scene throughout and guide the audience around the rich tapestry of characters that appear. The two worked well together and remained distinct despite their very similar roles; Teale’s monologue at the break of dawn was a particular highlight. Most noticeably in monologues they seemed to try a little too hard, and a bit more subtlety wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this was not a major detraction. The rest of the cast all work well, both as a unit and individually, and their ability to believably flit between utterly contrasting characters, sometimes in a matter of seconds, was very impressive. The performers remain on stage at all times, but instead of either remaining in character or staying blank-faced when not in a scene, they watch their co-actors as if they were audience members, laughing along as we did; something that draws the audience even further into the community.
The set was empty, save for the actors and a handful of chairs, and is simple yet elegant, with sweeping ramps that circumnavigate the main body of the stage. This uncluttered approach works wonders, as nothing can distract from the beauty of the words being spoken. With the exception of the Voices, costume is effective in the same way; all are garbed in brown and beige, which adds a homely feel to the production without detracting from the poetry.
The pacing and arrangement of the script is thoughtful – a series of funny, light hearted scenes would often be followed by a sadder, more melancholic and heartfelt one, before the joking started up again. This meant that the audience are never allowed to feel sad, but very definitely touched at times.
To call Under Milk Wood a play is potentially misguided; it doesn’t follow the conventions of story arc, character development and conclusion. It is, however, a beautifully engaging show, brimming with charm and talent. I would urge everyone to go and watch it, do so with an open mind and you cannot fail to be drawn in to the sweet and charming world of Milk Wood.