Under Milk Wood @ Tricycle Theatre, London

cast list
Philip Madoc
Gareth Kennerly
Howell Evans
Cerith Flinn
Abi Harris
Jennifer Hill
Anne Rutter
Glyn Pritchard
David Jason (as the voice of the Guidebook)

directed by
Malcolm Taylor
When I was young, my father who wouldnt permit television in the house bought the Richard Burton recording of Under Milk Wood. To a preachers daughter who still wondered what it was like to kiss, hearing that merry, bawdy, melancholy play was a little like flinging open a door on a world Id no idea was there, and over the years I mustve read or heard it a dozen times or more.

You can readily imagine, then, the terror with which I approached Kilburns Tricycle theatre: what would they do with my Captain Cat, whose tears invariably ended up in my own eyes, or with Mae Rose Cottage, whose intention to Sin until I blow up! had seemed to me as good an ambition as any? Id heard dark mutterings of a fatally grandiose production at the National Theatre, all cantilevered stages and Proper Acting, and grimly resolved that I would flounce out at the soonest opportunity if they muddied my childhood memories.

As it happened, at just precisely the moment the narrator in a deep, wry, affectionate voice described the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives, I set up a great shining grin not likely to fade for days. Director Malcolm Taylor has resisted the temptation for conventional sets, or conventional acting with innumerable props and costume-changes: as befits a play for voices the small cast are seated on cases, chairs and wool-sacks, on a stage scattered with lobster-pots and fishing-nets. On a translucent screen behind theres a suggestion of hillside, and the light moves almost imperceptibly from midnight to dawn, and from afternoon to dusk.

The two narrators sit on either side of the stage, perched on high stools. Philip Madoc, as the First Voice, lacks the hypnotic tolling quality of the Burton narration (and indeed it would be a touch churlish to expect it of him), but his voice is warm and deep as a sandalwood bath. This being the first live production Id seen I found it thrilling to have the narrators engage with the audience: theyd seek out eye-contact, or smile sometimes despite themselves at Organ Morgan mistaking a dozing drunk for the effigy of JS Bach. Gareth Kennerley as the Second Voice had less gravitas than Madoc, and seemed at times uneasy, but delivered that playful, sensuous, melodic prose with conviction and relish.

Of the actors, who each played at least half-a-dozen roles, Howell Evans is a bright, particular star. His Captain Cat, turning a blind face to his dead dears, fairly tore my heart to pieces but it was reassembled by the perfect tragi-comedy of his Mr Pugh, reading Lives of Great Poisoners as his sour wife sourly eats her supper. Jennifer Hill and Anne Rutter, gloriously beautiful women on the other side of middle age, contrive to be coquettish, bitchy, sour or nave; theyre grandmothers, whores, and fond forbearing wives. Glyn Pritchard and Cerith Flynn are by turns grotesque, lonely and lusty, as my old companions Organ Morgan, No Good Boyo or Sinbad Sailors, and Abi Harris swings perfectly between Mae Rose lying the clover with lipsticked nipples waiting for the worst to happen, and Polly Garter mourning as she scrubs the floor.

The plays chief glory is perhaps the language, unlike anything before or since; so hypnotic as to almost send you into a stupor, so vivid you could sit in a grey-walled cell and still hear the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles of the humming streets.

But more than this, Dylan Thomas knew what a thing it is just to be alive, with every morning cup of tea attended by chances lost and taken, and baffled desire and little hopes and its this that ensures the play outlasts its generation. The Tricycles production comes closer to doing it justice than I had any right to expect and if I listen hard enough I can still hear, just behind my shoulder, Polly Garter sighing: Isnt life a terrible thingthank God!

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