Under Milk Wood

“Quite a big answer to Milk Wood’s ‘big ask,’” writes FRANCES DOCX. But only quite.

dylan thomas francis docx george longworth imi myers Kenza Jernite Luke Sumner polly garter rebecca philips under milk wood

ADC Theatre, 11pm, 14-17th November £6/£5

Dir: Luke Sumner, Kenza Jernite

‘It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.’ No one forgets the first time they hear these words, this rhythm, the atmosphere evoked, and the absolute verbal nail Dylan Thomas hits on the head. No one, except maybe the ADC audience tonight. The opening was uninviting, and the beauty of Thomas’ linguistic labyrinth was lost in the pitch-black and stiff delivery.

I appreciate Sheepshanks’ and Hollyer’s articulacy and audibility as narrators – but I was disappointed in the adoption of a steady, pedestrian iambic for those crucial opening lines: where’s that verbal vigour? And I’d like some gravel and husk in that voice please.

For a (probably) unjustifiably long time, I debated whether I could forgive the painfully conspicuous prompt books which Sheepshanks and Hollyer clung to; I wondered, and still do, if I was being too demanding. Then it occurred to me, sitting in the dark listening to Dylan Thomas’ delicious word-concoctions, what a big ask Under Milk Wood really is.

Originally written for radio, the visual aspect of the play was always going to have a reductive impact on how closely we attend to the delivery. The stage-setting is an adaptation, not an imitation, and as far as translating vocal expression into the visual field goes, this production did a pretty commendable job. The dream-like surrealism of floating voices was well-crafted in the compact set, simple spot-lighting and seeping smoke machines. Costume was generally well done, apart from some crude and questionable bin bags in the first scene.

The acting was variable. Welsh accents were hit and miss, and predominantly the latter. One was quite definitely bordering on Jamaican. George Longworth, however, (here playing Captain Cat, Jack Black and Mr Waldo) is one to keep ‘Tabs’ on (cheeky). Longworth sat comfortably in each role like a seasoned thesp’, providing the most appropriate delivery of Dylan Thomas’ incredible work. Rebecca Phillips, too, acted with a touching grace and naturalism as the baby-doting Polly Garter. Imi Myers warmed up as the production unfolded; her strongest moments being in the homicidal exchanges between Mr and Mrs Pugh. Myers’ perfectly cracked the bathos intended in this scene and quite visibly endeared herself to the audience as the production progressed.

Directors Sumner and Jernite and their extensive cast provided quite a big answer to Milk Wood’s ‘big ask’; they entertained, they amused, they often disturbed. Unfortunately, the production creaked under the pressure of bridging the verbal – visual gap and often didn’t quite make it in both fields. Delivery needed to be much more nuanced for a play in which verbosity is central, and the production didn’t supply even a residual nod towards its Post-Hiroshima subtext. Of course this contextual omission is permissible – we are in the realms of adaptation – but perhaps it might have formed the depth lacking behind the crucial delivery.

Under Milk Wood is an inescapably beautiful play, and Dylan Thomas’ incredible lyricism will always engage us. However, the intensity with which we listen and what we listen to specifically, depends on the delivery of its actors. This production is worth seeing even if just for those infrequent flashes of brilliance when the tone and pace is elegantly delivered, the poetry unfurled and expanded fully, and the atmosphere of Milk Wood sharply evoked. These are the moments that you won’t forget.