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BWW Review: UNDER MILK WOOD, National Theatre


Michael Sheen tackles Dylan Thomas's masterpiece again, this time directed by Lyndsey Turner

BWW Review: UNDER MILK WOOD, National Theatre

BWW Review: UNDER MILK WOOD, National Theatre "To begin at the beginning", Welsh poet Dylan Thomas never got to fulfil his true dream for his troubled radio play Under Milk Wood. It took 20 years of laborious work to put the final touches on the personalities of fictional Llareggub. Alcohol poisoning might have taken Thomas's life before he heard his drinking - and acting - mate Richard Burton's take on BBC Radio in 1954, a year after his sudden demise.

The piece's most recent incarnation was in 2014, when another celebrated Welshman Michael Sheen (from, indeed, the same town as Burton) took on the narrator role for the BBC. Now, the text is getting new life at The National Theatre. It marks Sheen's return to the material and boasts additional material by Siân Owen, who has given the story a new framing device.

Director Lyndsey Turner sets the action in a care home, where the unexpected visit of Mr Jenkins's son Owain (Sheen) stirs the rhythms and routine of the establishment and, as the struggling, alcoholic writer attempts to connect to his dementia-ridden father (Karl Johnson), we're taken on a journey to a bygone Wales in an effort to somehow jolt this retired head teacher back to full awareness and to life.

Irate and quick-tempered, Sheen's Owain grows more and more disheveled as events dive deeper into Llareggub. His fidgety and scruffy demeanor creates a stark difference with Johnson's polished suit and quiet performance. As much as he tries to resist the compelling call of alcohol, he ultimately fails and his demons show their real face.

The usually gargantuan Olivier stage somehow feels dainty and intimate with Turner's brushstroke. She traps the characters within an in-the-round fishbowl, heightening the voyeuristic nature of the play and allowing Sheen to become part emcee and part commander of the adventure. He picks the tenants of the home and assigns them roles, in a neat directorial touch.

Captain Cat (Anthony O'Donnell) goes from working on a wooden miniature of a ship with a bandaged eye to being the blind sea captain. The bickering elderly couple who watch the telly turn into Mrs and Mr Pugh (Cleo Sylvestre and Alan David), a domineering wife and her schoolmaster husband who dreams of poisoning her.

The cast are equal to the idiosyncrasies asked of them, but Sheen carries the narrative throughout. This version of Under Milk Wood would certainly be the Michael Sheen Show, if it weren't for the fact that the writing remains the main star. The supporting players comprise a scrumptious, peculiar array of Llareggub citizens who speak in riddles and seem to float in clouds of magical mystery.

The set design plays into this in a delightful, yet subtle way. Once the scant furnishings of the start are swiftly dragged off stage and the drab burgundy carpet is the only remaining visual, designer Merle Hensel has single trolleys become the props needed for the story flow to work. Tables and stoves are briskly rolled in, tablecloths are snapped away with crockery still proudly standing. Thick vapour comes out of a pot as Mrs Willy Nilly (Gillian Elisa) helps her postman husband (Lee Mengo) steam open his mail.

Love, lust, envy, and marital uneasiness all coexist in the tiny seaside town as gossip runs wild in Thomas's crisp portrait. The origin of the town's name is enough to paint a perfect picture of his imagination and give a hint of what to expect: the word is simply "bugger all" reversed. The village's daily life and drama here deepen as the internal struggles of the father-son duo start to come to the surface.

While young Jenkins struggles with his need for redemption as well as his drinking problem, his father seems to have been locked out of his memories. The power of storytelling ends up helping them both and their audience along with them. While we are introduced to characters that make us forget a world made of lockdown easings and vaccines outside of The National Theatre's doors, the pair make a true connection in a final, moving moment.

As they dive into a long, much-needed hug, everything seems normal again - for them and for us. The residents of the home go back to their daily routines of knitting and tea-drinking and bickering while we're left with the warm, fuzzy feeling that only exceptional storytelling can give.

Under Milk Wood runs at The National Theatre until 24 July.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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