REVIEW: Under Milk Wood (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 5)

Just before Under Milk Wood was first produced on stage its writer Dylan Thomas told the cast to, “love the words, love the words.” Loving and savouring the words and the rich, lyrical style of the author is just one highlight of a near-perfect production of this classic play for voices by Clwyd Theatr Cymru.

Tuesday, 1st July 2014, 9:00 am
What's on.
What's on.

From the unforgettable opening monologue this glorious production is an unmissable, striking and effective version of what is surely Dylan Thomas’ magnum opus. Not a sumptuous line is lost, not an outrageous character wasted, not a breath nudged out of place in this worthy celebration of the centenary of the writer’s birth.

It is probably fair to say that this dramatic gem is still best suited to radio, where the imagination can conjure up images of the weird and wonderful characters who inhabit the town of Llareggub. But you are not going to see a finer stage production of the piece than this one, directed with relish and poignancy by Terry Hands and with a spectacular set by Martyn Bainbridge which shows a bird’s eye view of the town complete with sun making its way across the sky to mark the dreams of a night becoming the rhythm of a day.

The always excellent Owen Teale gets the role of First Voice absolutely spot on: an often cheeky, sometimes dreamy, and occasionally wistful observer of the life of the larger than life town dwellers, ranging from butcher and baker to priest and ghost, from poisoner to prostitute. Teale wraps his tongue around every verbal delight beautifully and there is magic in the way his narrator brings the characters so vividly to life.

But the ten other performers are equally gifted, making real the dreams and often bizarre thoughts of those living in the otherwise sleepy seaside town with energy and sparkle. There’s Hedydd Dylan as nagging wife (or more properly widow) Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard and a plaintive Polly Garter; Richard Elfyn as Mr Pugh the schoolteacher, whose every dream is of how to rid himself of his domineering wife (a deliciously vitriolic Sophie Melville), and the lovelorn Mog Edwards; Sara Harris-Davis playing six roles, including the tormented Mrs Butcher Beynon, Mrs Willy Nilly the postman’s nosey wife, and the put-upon organist’s wife Mrs Organ Morgan.

Star turns too from Simon Nehan, splendid as the town chronicler and poet Revd Eli Jenkins, and the ever-teasing Butcher Beynon; Sophie Melville as a mysterious and wicked Mrs Dai Bread Two; Steven Meo, having much gleeful fun in roles including Willy Nilly, Ocky Milkman, and Organ Morgan; Kai Owen as bigamist baker Dai Bread and permanently sozzled Cherry Owen; Ifan Huw Dafydd as Captain Cat; Caryl Morgan, particularly fun as old Mary Ann Sailors, who constantly announces her great age loudly to the townsfolk; and Christian Patterson, as the Second Voice.

In this 60th anniversary production of the play’s British premiere, everything combines to make such a perfect whole, this is the one thing you need to see if you see nothing else to commemorate Dylan Thomas. You may well feel you need to see the production again and again, simply to catch the lyrical phrases and tapestry of characters.

Under Milk Wood is undoubtedly the finest radio drama ever written – this stage version is a masterpiece in its own right.