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‘An unmissable joy’: UNDER MILK WOOD – National Theatre ★★★★★

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Olivier, National Theatre – until 24 July 2021

It might be helpful if critics admitted sometimes arriving bad-tempered, hot, out of tune, dreading the long masked late night train journey home. Even, perhaps, churlishly admitting that they really hate the laboriously, Covidly, reconfigured Olivier in the round and the prissy – compulsory – rules like the poor usher having to push the lift button for you, even though fomite surface-infection has been discredited for months.

So there’s the confession: sitting in the Circle for half an hour of 1950s cheesy-listening music before the start, I was a dreadfully bad subject, wondering why I’d spent £20 (press tix are like hens’ teeth for us marginals in these social distanced days, quite rightly). But I worship Michael Sheen, who gets Rylance-ier by the day in his eccentricities, adored his Hamlet-in-a-psychiatric ward at the Young Vic, and even, forgave him those cringey Zoomathons with Tennant. And I hadn’t read or heard Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ play-for-voices, for decades. Actually, not since those cheesy-listening tracks were the grown-ups’ hip-hop. I remember being thrilled aged eight to find out, against parental intention, that the village of Llareggub whose day the poet relates is a palindrome of “bugger all”.

Given that filthy mood, an extra mouse is awarded because within 15 of its unbroken 105 minutes the show became an unmissable joy. It is framed by Sian Owen’s extra scripts, set at first in a care home. Young Owain (Sheen) has come to visit his old Dad, unresponsive on the edge of dementia. Frustration, edging on irritation, arises as it must do so grimly often in such homes,  until the son launches into “To begin at the beginning” and that torrent of Dylan-magic words evoke the the crow-black, sloe-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea – and we’re off!

If you don’t know Under Milk Wood and its cast of townsfolk, they are gloriously enhanced-commonplaces: you and me and the neighbours, in the days one knew one’s neighbours. Every auntie and uncle and local disgrace is there, woven into the headlong half-punning lyricism of Dylan Thomas.

So each of the care-home residents and staff flowers from stasis into vigour, personality, wickedness, pathos, goodness, doubling and shifting characters and picking up their words as Sheen tells the tale. It’s elegantly choreographed by director Lyndsey Turner, atmospherically lit by Tim Lutkin. Old blind Captain Cat (Anthony O’Donnell) breaks your heart,  listening to every footstep in the street outside, dreaming old love and bygone seas. Poor Mr Pugh reads Lives of the Great Poisoners at table with his menacing wife, Susan Brown is the even more menacing Mrs Ogmore Prichard and Polly Garter is up to no good in the wood..

It may be “A play for voices”  but there’s joy in seeing them at it. And Sheen ,sounds as if he was making it up as he goes along, which is just as it should be  (if the NT doesn’t bring him back to do A Child’s Christmas in Wales this winter, they’re not concentrating).   The pace is perfect.  And it’s a perfect piece to contemplate after a year when the shrinking worlds of lockdown made every neighbourhood a village and every one of us was connected in fate and behaviour whether we liked it or not.

Llaregub’s long day faded and the raring pub became once more a care home, final words were spoken and bows taken, and around the drear-arena came pattering-paws applause, distinct-distanced,  Dylan-dreaming of the Sheen-shade…..see?  a couple of hours of it and you’re talking like Dylan Thomas yourself.

I leave you with the words of the Rev. Jenkins  and ask forgiveness for the initial bad temper: it fits our times  and moods:
“Every evening at sun-down

I ask a blessing on the town,

For whether we last the night or no

I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good

Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

And Thou, I know, wilt be the first

To see our best side, not our worst”

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk    to 24 July

rating five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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