December 01, 1993

Udder Milk Leak

Under Milk Wood
by Dylan Thomas
State Theatre Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s wordtrembling, glottal throttling, Welsh blathering, earbending play for radio, is State’s choice for season’s end and Simon Phillips’ goodbye-to-all-that.

First performed a year after Thomas died of the sauce in 1953 the play tells of a night and a day in the life of a small Welsh coastal town. Dylan Thomas called it Llaregyb, a ferocious joke since a backward glance almost gives you bugger all. Under Milk Wood is a rich old pudding, popping with plums, fruity with syntax, busting with burble. Much of it is brilliant -neat, witty, sharp as a fishhook. Some of it is unutterably ghastly. Nouns verbing, verbs numbing, sentences groaning with consonance, poleaxed with alliteration. The writing can be a Welsh rarebit one minute, downright cheesy the next.

The State production has embraced the text in all its windy excess in a mainstage production that adds visual surfeit to syllabic overkill. The cast of sixteen move expansively in Shaun Gurton’s set festooned with black fishing nets and expressionist birch trees Strindberg would have been proud of. The sense of cauchemar is misplaced however because, for all that is unresolved and unfulfilled in Thomas’s night reveries, the piece is curdy with sentiment.

The comic platoon of bedsteads is closer to the mark especially with Krystof Kozlowski’s creamy lighting and Bronwyn Jones’s rustic threads. And of course the voices. Simon Phillips has assembled a strong cast with Welsh pipes good enough to trill and coo and bassoon their way through Thomas’s operatic text.

John Stanton, the best voiceover in the country, leads as the Narrator, a performance
worth the ticket in itself. He is ably supported by Claire Jones as the contrasting Second Voice and an array of cameos. Reg Evans is grave and wistful as Captain Cat, Peter Dunn robust as Dai Bread, Frank Whitten and Edwin Hodgeman
droll as Ogmore and Pritchard, and again as the orotund Rev Eli Jenkins and the would-be poisoner Pugh. Daphne Grey, Barbara West, Audine Leith and Carmel Johnson bring mesdames Ogmore- Pritchard, Pugh, Organ Morgan and others to censorious life in a play where the women say nor and the men go for a pint. Richard Piper is, as always, generously boisterous as the publican, Don Barker cheery as Cherry Owen and Grant Piro mordant as Nogood Boyo. Helen Morse generally beats the odds with Polly Garter, Thomas’s cliche of the good sort, but nobody should be expected to make that Little Willy Wee song work.

Dylan Thomas reputedly left as stage directions for Under Milk Wood the injunction -“Love the words, LOVE the words.” Perhaps if he had loved them more than the sound of his own voice he would have left us fewer whacking-thighed barnacle-breasted goat-and-daisy dingles and more of Mrs Pugh sweet as a razor.

Simon Phillips has given us an amiable production with some fine performances but he and Shaun Gurton have not persuaded us that Under Milk Wood can really be a play for the stage. With all those words a full production is like having cream as well as icing.

The Adelaide Review, No.121, December, 1993, p.42.

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