Theatre review: Under Milk Wood @
York Theatre Royal

Published by The Arts Desk

A spiralling stage, horned with two raised prongs. A circular display, mounted on the back wall, which presents the buildings and coastline of a seaside town from a bird’s eye view. Subtle blues, yellows and reds that light up the stage to reflect the time of day. Spirited actors buzzing around like heated molecules in an educational science video as they each take on several roles.

If Under Milk Wood was exclusively “a play for voices”, as its author Dylan Thomas suggested, then such visual aspects of the classic Welsh tale would never have come into being. But here they are at York Theatre Royal, where Terry Hands’ stage production continues its major tour of the UK and the US. With stars including Game of Thrones regular Owen Teale and Torchwood’s Kai Owen, Theatr Clwyd Cymru's energetic revival of the play directed by Terry Hands marks the 60th year since it made its debut on BBC radio, and the centenary of Thomas’s birth.

Under Milk Wood was reportedly the Welsh poet’s attempt to create his own version of James Joyce’s Ulysses – taking in 24 hours in the lives of the residents of fictional Llareggub (read backwards for a smirk). Among the town’s more flamboyant characters are Blind Captain Cat, who dreams of dead former shipmates, Mog Edwards and his sweetheart Miss Price, whose romance only exists in the letters they write, barman Sinbad Sailor, who runs the bonkers Sailors Arms pub, bigamist baker Dai Bread, forever floor-scrubbing Polly Garter, Nogood Boyo, whose shenanigans cause mayhem in the wash house, and Lily Smalls, who longs for a more exciting life.

While the play is rich with anecdotal incidents, it lacks actual drama, and yet, as an inherently lyrical work, the action lies within the language itself. From when Teale’s First Voice says: “Listen! It is night. Come closer. Hear their dreams…” we are hooked from sunrise to sunset. Every line is delivered note-perfect, every word charged, every syllable treasured, every sound cherished to the last phoneme. Caryl Morgan’s spine-tinglingly evocative recital of an old woman’s dream about the Garden of Eden, and Richard Elfyn’s continuously impressive vocal range, make them highlights of a superb cast that carries no weak links.

Sometimes risqué, all times charming and cheerful, this relatively short piece moves quickly as Llareggub’s larger-than-life gaggle go about their existences – and we audience members wear warm smiles throughout as we become endeared to a simple way of life we can’t quite recall. It all ends just as it started, with each character encased in heavy sleep.

So then it’s our time to go, and leave through the theatre’s exit, emerge onto the lit street, and somehow try to relate what we’ve seen to our own lives. It’s not that difficult, I realise, as a friend bumps into me on my route home and suggests a drink in our local. It’s not quite the Sailors Arms, but it’ll do.


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Let me start by saying that a part of me always feels sad when a good conversation ends. Because I know I’ll never enjoy that same conversation again.

So I'm with Carl and his friend Renny in The Duke on the Saturday night after payday and the air inside is warm, very warm, with people. It’s so busy we can’t be seated. We barely even have space to turn away from the bar and find something to lean against after collecting our drinks.

Carl takes a swig of something orange and icy, and says: “Let's go after this.”

I say: “What?” and he says: “Let’s go after this.”

Renny looks distracted, maybe by the ringing of fruit machines, clinking of glasses, clashing of pool balls, or any of a number of things as constant in here. Constant, like the sound of distant footsteps in a hospital ward.

“Agreed,” I say. “But I think everywhere’s going to be packed, to be honest.”

Sometime later, I’m buying our third round in The Duke. The drinks are served in three different-sized glasses, which makes it tricky to take them back in one trip. But I do. By now we’ve found a spare stool next to the fire exit, and we’re taking turns to rest our legs. The way it’s worked out is that whoever buys the round gets to sit down, for a bit. Our crumpled coats pick up wet dust on a shelf above our heads as our empty glasses reflect our shoes. It's not the best night out we've ever had.

Carl says: “We’re leaving.”

“You’re leaving? What, now?” I say. “But I’ve got your drinks here.”

“Keep them,” says Carl.

“What? No, this is my round,” I say.

“Mate, we didn’t ask you to get another round,” says Carl. “We’re going back to mine for a smoke, alright?”

He reaches for his jacket as Renny opens the fire door, inviting in a blast of evening air that flutters posters against the wall and slides flyers across the floor. I’m still holding our drinks awkwardly. And Renny’s smiling for the first time tonight.

“Sorry man,” says Carl, the unlit joint between his lips quivering with each syllable. The door shuts with a windy slam.

After a couple of minutes, I head outside for a cigarette.

“I can give you one of these,” I say to this guy. “My friends left them.”

Someone once told me it’s surprising how many people want to know you when there’s a free drink in it.

“Sure,” the guy says. He flicks open the packet.

Or maybe it isn’t. I mean, surprising. Anyway, they were right.

“Thanks,” I say.

I take the only cigarette that isn’t filter-up in the packet.

“Woah, wait. Wait. That’s my lucky one,” the guy says.

He doesn’t smile, so I put it back, upside-down, as it was, and take another, as well as the lighter from the middle of the table.

“Sorry,” I say.

“You’re going to have to speak up. I’m deaf in one ear,” he says.

He puts down the glass Carl never touched and mimes scratching a record on a turntable. “Too much DJ-ing.”

I smile politely and take a seat opposite him.

“So which country are you from?” the guy says. “Where’s that accent from?”

“Accent?” I say.

Maybe it's something to do with my lips being numb, or that I’m shouting to make myself heard.

“No, I live not far away,” I say.

“Norway?” he says.

“No, not Norway, not far away!” I say.

“Lovely country,” he says.

“No, not...” I say.

I’m thinking that it’s not like this night could get any worse, and the accent just kind of slips out.

“Yes, Norway. I am from Norway,” I say.

I expect him to notice. But he doesn’t notice. Nobody notices.

“I've not been to Norway, but I'd like to go,” he says.

I'm thinking me too, but say something like: “Oh, you should!”

Then it starts to flow.

“You can visit me and my grandparents in the north, in Tromso!” I say.

Tromso’s definitely a place.

“It's beautiful there in the winter time!” I say.

It's come up when I’ve looked for holidays. I'm not sure it’s in the north, but this guy is less sure.

“Well I'd love to... what's your name? I'm Bill,” he says.

“My name is Bjorn,” I say.

“Well, Bjorn,” he says. He's still shaking my hand. “I'd love to, someday.”

We talk for 30 minutes like this. He tells me about his two kids in college, and his second wife, who died. And he wants to visit my grandparents in Tromso so much that I wish they existed. It seems like a good time to move on when he finishes Carl's drink and seems to expect another, so I tell him I’ll be right back and go to the bar alone. As I serve my time in the ridiculous roll-call of impatient men gripping bank notes and staring desperately at the working bartender, I feel really bad.

Then I sit down next to a group of four girls, and wait. A woman with olive skin, wearing green, is closest to me. I tap her shoulder.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” I say, in the accent.

I point to where a watch isn’t on my wrist. I've already seen she isn't wearing one, but I'm thinking this could be a way in.

“Oh, you know what? I don't,” she says, I think in a Midlands accent. “Sorry.”

“That’s OK! What is your name?” I say.

She shrugs, turns her back, and everything falls into the same rhythm as before.

I say: “You are very beautiful!” but she doesn’t respond.

Back outside, the man I was talking to is smoking alone. But I’m with a woman now, it’s going pretty well, and I’m thinking please, nobody recognise me. This woman has a friend who isn’t drunk.

“Tromso sounds wonderful!” the woman says. “Why come here?”

“I am a student, here at the university,” I say. “I just love the buildings here, and the history of the place. It’s great! And you all are very beautiful, you British girls!”

The woman laughs hard; her friend squints.

“I love the British women,” I tell the woman. “They are beautiful. And you are beautiful.”

Blinking slowly, she brushes her fringe out of her eye and stumbles. I catch her before she falls down the concrete steps.

In my arms, looking up at me, she says: “Where are you staying tonight?”

“I sleep maybe in, how you say, hostel?” I say. “If they have room for me.”

“You can stay at mine,” she says.

Now her friend, who hasn’t yet spoken, steps forward.

“Hey, is it colder than this in Tromso?” says the friend.

“Uh... yes. Most of the year, it is,” I say.

“That’s interesting,” the friend says. She glares at me.

“Remind me, what’s the currency in Norway?” she says, folding her arms.

“Uh...” I say.

But I don’t get even one attempt.

“Come on Kate, I’ll take you home. This guy’s a weirdo,” she says.

Krone, is it krone? I think, as they descend the concrete steps. Or is krone the Czech Republic? It doesn’t matter, I’ve blown it.

At work, a couple of weeks later, I say to Carl: “What’s the currency in Norway?”

Carl checks.

“Krone,” he says. He reads on for a little while, before looking back across the desk at me. “Why? What’s funny?”


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