One of the great joys of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work, Under Milk Wood, is that as a play for voices – originally intended for radio broadcast – it allows the audience to generate its own pictures in the boundless arena of its imagination. So how do you resolve this creative dichotomy when it comes to transferring the Welsh masterpiece to the stage?
It’s a conundrum that has plagued theatre productions throughout the play’s history: how much of Thomas’s vivid and vibrant imagery do you present literally, and how much do you leave suggested, making the audience work a little for the full picture in their minds? Director Adele Thomas, helming her first full piece as part of a Royal & Derngate training scheme, has gone for the literal approach, with almost every descriptive line illustrated by a prop, a costume change or a sight gag.
Working with a cast of five, she dresses four of them in 1950s-style underwear – all cami-knickers and combinations – and then uses their corset-clad bodies as blank canvasses on which to impose the whole extraordinary array of characters, up to ten per actor. Matthew Bulgo, Arwel Gruffydd, Sara Harris-Davies and Katy Owen all cope admirably with the weight of this expectation (the costume changes alone would challenge lesser mortals), but the experimental, fringe-style approach to the production ultimately detracts from Thomas’s masterly, colourful vignette of smalltown life.
On Hannah Clark’s simple set, lined either side with huge racks of clothing, the multitude of weird and wonderful characters have to scurry frantically from one snatched line of text to the next, with the gentle, lyrical humour forced to unnatural lengths – there’s even an anachronistic swine flu gag elbowed in. But all the half-ideas crammed into this overflowing cauldron can be forgiven for the sound of Aled Pugh, a mellifluous presence acting as narrator, whose lilting Welsh tones guide the audience assuredly through the day in the life of Llareggub.
Evoking memories of the classic Richard Burton recording, his charismatic voice and steadying manner become almost dangerous, sorely tempting you simply to close your eyes and let the music of the words wash soothingly over you. This attempt at scaling Llareggub Hill is a brave stab at a probably unclimbable peak. But with Pugh as sherpa, the team definitely gets further than they otherwise might.