Wednesday 23 June 2021

Theatre Review: Under Milk Wood (National Theatre)


Even with a necessarily compromised experience - no bookshop-browsing or drinks in the foyer - returning to the National Theatre yesterday (my first visit since The Visit in February 2020) felt a bit like coming home.  The friendly, helpful staff ensured a smooth entrance into the building and auditorium, and the collective joy of being back in a space that holds so many memories for many of us was palpable. 

It helps too that the "reopening" show, Lindsey Turner's production of Dylan Thomas's classic Under Milk Wood, is absolutely delightful. Staged in a partially reconfigured Olivier that makes the show an in-the-round experience for those in the stalls, the production avails itself of "additional material" by Sián Owen that proves wonderfully successful in adding some extra levels and layers to a text that can run the risk of looking merely quaint. 

The atmosphere in the auditorium is welcoming even before the show starts. Following a seductive selection of creamy crooner classics, a befuddled, pajama-clad Karl Johnson enters the sheet-covered stage; the appearance of nurses and residents soon locates us in a care home. And the stories, relationships, dreams and daily doings of the inhabitants of Llareggub become, in this account, a tale told by a son to make contact with his Alzheimer's-afflicted Dad.

A few moments suggest the influence of David Cromer’s seminal take on Our Town but Turner's fluid production has an uncanny quality all its own. Part of that has to do with the suggestions of the multiple stories of the past that are present under a care home's daily facade and quotidian chatter, and also with the production's confident mix of moods and attention to the text's lyricism, humour, absurdity and melancholy. 

The multitasking, mostly Welsh cast, some of whom have a long history with the play (and who manage to play kids and cows without generating embarrassment) is itself a dream. From Sián Phillips as Polly Garter, singing of her dead lover, to Anthony O'Donnell's Captain Cat reliving his seafaring days, Alan David as Mr. Pugh the would-be poisoner, and Susan Brown as Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard tormented by the ghosts of two deceased husbands, there are no weak links. A true, heartening sense of ensemble is sustained, aided in no small part by Michael Sheen as the on-edge son turned ebullient narrator. 

Ever since playing Tony Blair, Sheen has done too much "impersonation acting" but his performance here - full of gusto, telling detail and unstressed Thomasesque touches - reminds us what a wonderful, inventive actor he can be. Thomas's idiosyncratic language is savoured by all, and Johnson makes "We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood" a humane lesson for our own polarised, accusatory age. Indeed, the beauty of Turner's production lies in the combined boldness and delicacy with which it finds fresh ways to make Thomas's play connect with us today. 

Under Milk Wood is booking until 24 July.