Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog , Theatr Clwyd,Mold , January 16, 2004
The past is another country that most of us struggle to re-enter in later life. But a few lucky people have a key that can unlock the barrier and move seamlessly between past and present.

Dylan Thomas had the gift: an ability to exercise immaculate recall and conjure again his childhood and adolescence in an old Wales that was changing rapidly even then.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the Welsh wordsmith captured the passion and anguish of youth, the eccentricity of his elders, and the light and shade of growing up.

Clwyd Theatr Cymru's own wordsmith, Tim Baker, has created from Thomas's autobiographical prose a play that is rich in nostalgia and emotion and recalls what Thomas himself called "the disadvantages of a happy childhood."

The play was staged for the first time last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Thomas's death.

Now Baker has re-worked, re-cast and re-directed it, and it is both funny and dark, struck through with a rich vein of nostalgia for a Wales now gone.

The first production used a cast of men and women, but Baker has re-cast it with five talented young men who play all the roles including aunts, barmaids and long-suffering mothers. They pass the baton as Thomas the narrator from one to another as the scenes change.

The effect is powerful, as if the five - Steve Meo, Simon Nehan, Kai Owen, Christian Patterson and Aled Pugh - are facets of the same brilliant-cut gem that is Dylan Thomas.

A laddish chemistry binds them together. The play begins with Thomas in his snow-covered home town, searching for faces from his past who remember his boyhood.

The search sparks off memories of his developing love of words.

"I fell in love with words at an early age, and am still at the mercy of them... They are miraculous, like eggs laid by tigers," he tells the audience.

The memories lead to potent vignettes of his childhood and youth. In The Outing to Porthcawl, the young Dylan is reluctantly taken on the boozy trip by his buffalo-like uncle and friends.

The child, who is both outside and inside the event, records with an unblinking eye his elders' descent into drunkenness and incoherence.

Along the way the characters joke and bicker, and indulge in some wonderful traditional hymn singing in Welsh that raises the hair on the back of your neck.

The Peaches is a darker tale in which the rural idyll of life on Thomas's uncle's farm is underscored by drink, poverty and violence.

But it produces, too, one of the funniest scenes as young Dylan and his friend Jack play cowboys and Indians in the meadows and catch their religious cousin hunched over a girlie magazine in the outside loo.

The strictures of class and the gulf between poor and rich are painfully highlighted in the tea party for Jack's mother.

Baker's production captures the differences between the inter-war years of Thomas's youth and our own high-tech world, but also finds much common ground.

His callow, chirpy youths looking for an antidote to boredom follow people for fun, making up names and life histories for them.

They wrestle with recalcitrant umbrellas and tease gullible girls, annoy world-weary barmaids and try to be sophisticated, but their naivety gleams through.

The last story, A Walk to Worm's Head, is the most poignant, as Dylan struggles to lighten the grief of Ray who has seen his brother die of consumption, and his father of epilepsy.

Christian Patterson gives a moving performance as Ray, who finds solace in comradeship and the sea.

Simply staged, with nothing more than a few low walls of slate on the set, the play relies on Thomas's own words and the skills of the multi-talented ensemble company to bring this vanished world to life.

It is another hit from the Clwyd Theatr Cymru team and looks certain to be well-received when it tours to Bangor, Aberystwyth and South Wales in February.

Reviewed by: Gail Cooper

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