Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Under Milk Wood

Guy Masterson Productions , Weston Studio, WMC Cardiff , January 14, 2005
This review first appeared in the Western Mail......

It seems very strange that in the dozen years that Guy Masterson has been touring his hugely successful production of that most staged of Welsh plays we’ve had to wait until now for the Cardiff premiere – but here it is, and to not a large audience when I saw it, the only one-man version of Under Milk Wood.

It’s garnered rave reviews and regularly wows them at Edinburgh and you can see why. It’s an impressive tour-de-force as with barely a hiccup Masterson whips through Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, clad in striped pyjamas and with only a glass of water and a chair as props.

Masterson is half-Welsh (the other half is Italian-American) and he has no problem with the accent, the usual stumbling block, both as narrator and with the dialect. He is also a consummate solo performer, using his hands and facial expressions to great effect, and surprisingly energetic for rather a sturdy man.

But we are so, so familiar with this work that I wonder if this impressive show does much more than elicit admiration for his theatrical skills – the words seem purely the raw material for an entertaining couple of hours.

The play is, indeed, problematic – not only was it intended for radio, so a production such as this, very visual and with just one (albeit much modulated) voice, runs counter to the original concept, but it can so easily be seen as a series of patronising stereotypes, an emetic explosion of verbosity with childishly bawdy humour. Masterson’s performance perhaps reinforces the play as a parody of Welsh people, especially since he plays most of the women as panto dames, and avoids any sense of irony at all, even in the Rev Eli Jenkins’s deliberately awful poetry.

He also tends to rush through some of the more serious parts and linger on others and Matt Clifford’s soundtrack is sometimes effectively atmospheric but too often too literal (a dog barks when the text tells us a dog barks, for example) and simply programmatic. The echo effect used every so often I also found unnecessary and even disruptive.

Now some of this is rather odd. Masterson is not only half-Welsh but that half is apparently related to Richard Burton – he is, I believe, Burton’s nephew, although there is no reference to this connection in his official biography – and, furthermore, he has explored his Welsh roots with a solo adaptation of Fern Hill, directed Mark Jenkins’s Playing Burton and played the First Voice in Terry Hamds’s Theatr Clwyd version of Under Milk Wood. The man knows his Dylan Thomas and has credentials.

But he still doesn’t seem to me to have probed very deeply into this rich play, which to me is a minor work of genius, warmhearted, complex, witty, with a dark underbelly and ultimately abrogatory, anti-English rather than a denial of the author’s own Welshness., and I suspect that Masterson is at heart a tireless theatrical entrepreneur – he’s produced over 50 shows in the last decade – who cares more about theatricality than anything else.

And that’s just what this take on Under Milk Wood is: utterly theatrical, entertaining and a marvellous performance. Do we want more ? Yes, of course, but it is still a very well-done little number.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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