Writer: Dylan Thomas
Music: Olly Fox
Director: Brendan O’Hea
Reviewer: Emma Pritchard
It was The Watermill’s first professional production when the theatre opened its doors back in 1967, so how fitting that Under Milk Wood should return to the venue to mark its 50th anniversary year. And, with a cast led by the talented and versatile performer Alistair McGowan, The Watermill knows how to celebrate in style.
Under Milk Wood may have long been described as ‘a play for voices’ but in stage enactment, it comes alive as a play for people – not only the characters and cast who portray them but for the audience, too. With director Brendan O’Hea’s simple staging combined with the intimate nature of the 220-seat Watermill Theatre – and the fact that this 19th Century timber-framed venue (as the name would suggest; it is a former working mill) gently creeks like boats caught in a breeze – it’s almost impossible not to be transported to the fishing village of Llareggub, where the action takes place.
In two 50-minute acts and through the intelligent, laden descriptions that he is famous for, Thomas tells the stories of 50 of Llareggub’s inhabitants, laying 24 hours of their lives and innermost thoughts bare for the audience to laugh at, sorrow over, judge and, perhaps, even relate to. O’Hea’s – as per Thomas’s original performance – centres around a cast of just six.
It’s a tough call but a challenge that the cast not only live up to, but exceed – with obvious enjoyment. Take Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate Ross Ford, who portrays the inner plottings of wife-poisoning Mr Pugh with a surprisingly warming charm; Lynn Hunter, who captivates as the tormented love-lost Captain Cat; and Caroline Sheen, who you may recognise from the 2012 film production of Les Miserables, and who couldn’t be more convincing as the hoity-toity Lord Cut-Glass one moment, then the sweet-voiced mother-of-many Polly Garter, the next. For Charlotte O’Leary, Under Milk Wood is her first professional production since graduating, although you wouldn’t realise; she takes on each of her characters with confidence, with the widowed Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard depicted with particular flair. Steffan Cennydd, meanwhile, is an absolute joy to watch, with his myriad facial expressions allowing him to effortlessly – and humorously – switch between being the over-sharing postman Willy Nilly to portraying the suggestive and sensuous Mae Rose Cottage. Expect to laugh, a lot.
Last, but by no means least, is McGowan, who takes the role of the omniscient and omnipresent narrator or ‘Voice’, executing the lengthy, frequently tongue-twisting, script with faultless precision and voice control.
An energetic, electric and, above all, a fun portrayal of Thomas’ insightful drama, and deserves more than this short run.
Runs until Saturday 4 November 2017 | Image: Philip Tull