Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Under Milk Wood , New Theatre, Cardiff , March 13, 2014
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Under Milk Wood Clwyd Theatr Cymruís Terry Hands has created a mesmerising staged version of Thomasí glorious celebration of words that will delight those with a lifelong love affair with the work and newcomers to the celebration of humanity, warts and all.

His designer Martyn Bainbridge has given the players an uncluttered, minimal set with a circular ramps and ladder leading to a raised area for Captain Cat, with the backdrop being a three-dimensional model of the coastal community seen from a seagullís perspective. It all works effortlessly and makes the audience feel they are seeing into an open oyster shell or perhaps a Penclawdd cockle would be more appropriate Ė like the work, lots of salty sea flavour and a fair bit of grit.

Having opened at the companyís home in Mold, the production is now on tour the strong ensemble cast of 11 players, including the two narrators, bring to life the 60 plus characters who range from lovable to loathsome as they traverse 24 hours, from their dreams, the events of daytime and back again into the blackness of another night.
There is no strict narrative to the play, rather an interweaving strand of anecdotes, vignettes, monologues, poems and songs, driven along by the First and Second Voice as they invite us to listen and watch with them. It was impossible not to, from the very opening words to the closing seconds of what is sure to be a popular highlight of the centenary year of the great writerís birth.

In this manifestation of the work, Hands accepts that this play for voices is a work where the drama, for what it is, takes place in the spoken word, not physical activity. That action is full of charm, such as the childrenís kissing game, affection or venom, when it is the interaction of the couples (and triples), soulfulness and longing from those looking for love, those who have lost love and those who just cannot consummate their love. So while there is, of course, plenty of stage direction and dramatic interpretation, it is always second to the voice: it never swamps Thomasí spellbinding, intoxicating and often rapidly delivered vocabulary.

Fortunately, Hands has an excellent central narrator with Owen Teale as First Voice for working the wonder of Thomasí poetry, particularly when the flow of words becomes a glorious torrent. There were moments where the poetry is allowed to slip a little for the choice of delivery but that is a small digression in an otherwise forthright, harmonious outpouring of elegant eloquence. He is balanced with Christian Pettersonís lighter Second Voice as the pair interweave with the characters, both vocally and dramatically.

Like the spiralling set, the inhabitants of Llareggub, Hands makes his cast work around one another in what could become a confused melding of characters but skilfully they retain that individuality through distinctive voices and physical gestures. Everyone probably envisages each of the larger than life characters in their own way and Hands has not held back from allowing the players to give individually crafted interpretations of Thomasí creations. Occasionally I yearned for a little more emphasis on the rich pathos in the work to balance the fun but the silly physical humour clearly delighted the large and enthusiastic audience and was never strictly at odds with the text.

Hands has a veritable rainbow of talent in this troupe. The townswomen are both collectively and individually excellent so full praise to Katie Erin-Salt, Sara Harris-Davies, Sophie Melville, and Caryl Morgan. Similarly, the men, Richard Elfyn, Steven Meo, Simon Nehan and Kai Owen, were uniformly superb in the tapestry of roles they too have to create. Special mention is needed for the sweet sadness of Polly garter sung and played by Katie Elin-Salt; Simon Nehanís henpecked but darkly vengeful Mr Pugh (although vocally a little Gollum-esque at times); Simon Nehanís lovably ridiculous Reverend Eli Jenkins while Steven Meo is the undoubted comedian of the evening, playing on every opportunity to match physical humour with the gifts given to him in the text.

At the New Theatre until March 15; Grand Theatre, Swansea March 18 to 22; Riverfront, Newport, March 28, 29; Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, April 2-5; Aberystwyth Arts Centre, April 10-12; The Hafren, Newtown, April 15 to 19 and then touring England until July 12.

Reviewed by: Mike Smith

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