Under Milk Wood

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

12/08/2006 - 09/09/2006

Production Details

By Dylan Thomas
Directed by Rachel More

Lighting design by Lisa Maule
Set design by Nicole Cosgrove
Sound design, composition and performance by Michael Nicolas Williams

Be taken on a midnight-to-midnight prowl through Llareggub (try reading it backwards), a small fictional seaside town somewhere in Wales, by its eccentric, charming and unforgettable characters.

‘I’ll sin till I blow up!’

We have brought together the ultimate ‘dream team’ to present this well loved piece by one of the twentieth Century’s most influential lyrical poets. Four fantastic actors (Ray Henwood, Jude Gibson, Loren Horsley and Tim Spite) and one talented musician (Michael Nicholas Williams) will transport you to this witsful town full of dreams, secrets, desires and longing.

‘From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’

So come and lose yourself in the sounds, smells and sights of Llareggub, experience the follies, joys, and tragedies of its people and give in to the unforgettable rhythm, flow and sensuality of Dylan Thomas’ magically powerful words.

Ray Henwood
Jude Gibson
Tim Spite
Loren Horsley

Theatre ,

Exquisite, delicious classic

Review by Lynn Freeman 21st Aug 2006

Under Milk Wood is an exquisite piece of writing.

This imagining of a tiny Welsh village ("a tiny dingle is Mill Wood") with its ordinary citizens and their unbearably sad and wishful dreams.

Dylan Thomas’ play is poetry in motion, in this instance lovingly directed by Rachel More and performed by her cast of four.

Here you meet Mr Pew with his poisonous intentions towards the ghastly Mrs Pew – "as sweet as a razor", No Good Boyo who would like to be good, the lovely Lily who talks to herself in the mirror, poor blind Captain Cat who dreams of his dead companions and lovers, and Willy Nilly the Postman and his wife who lives vicariously through other peoples’ mail.

Ray Henwood, Jude Gibson, Tim Spite and Loren Horsley breathe life and spirit into Thomas’ wide array of villagers. Welsh-born Henwood speaks Thomas’ liquid language as it should be heard, and sets a benchmark of consistency that his companions can’t match, but it seldom rankles because the performances are so delicious.

Lisa Maule’s lighting, especially for the opening night time scenes, is wonderfully evocative. Nicole Cosgrove’s set, while well thought out and giving the sense of a small claustrophobic village, is curiously painted off white rather than the traditional Welsh slate grey.

Under Milk Wood has earned its place as a literary classic. If you don’t know it, this production is an easy way into the work. It’s not – ironically – as dramatic as UK actor Guy Masterson’s set-free solo performance brought to Wellington a few years back, but it’s a charming way to spend a couple of hours.


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Familiar play sparkles afresh

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Aug 2006

I set off rather reluctantly on Saturday night to see Under Milk Wood yet again. I was brought up with the famed BBC version; I taught it in English classes; I have seen 5 stage versions, one solo performance, and the film. The thought of another evening of Thomas’s plethora of adjectives and similes fighting for attention amongst his long lists of nouns and his insistent alliteration was not exactly enticing. Kenneth Tynan described him as raping the dictionary.

But I didn’t count on Rachel More’s beguiling production to make me forget within a few minutes my reservations as the Narrator (Ray Henwood) introduced us to the sleeping village of Llaregyb and to take us behind the eyes of the sleepers and hear their dreams. It’s such an enjoyable production that I even forgot about the bum-numbing Downstage seats.

Nicole Cosgrove’s setting is functional and close to the audience. It has a tiny revolving stage and various levels that hint at the humble two-storied houses of the village, which are also marked out by five old-fashioned wirelesses. Tucked away in a back corner is an integral but unobtrusive part of the pleasures of the evening in the shape of Michael Nicholas Williams who provides with great delicacy the music and a few well-chosen sound effects.

The four highly experienced actors play all the parts and they establish without straining for effect the comedy and the quiet tragedy in the turmoil of existence that is summed up in Polly Garter’s famous line: Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God!

They all find that delicate point between exaggeration for comic effect and human reality with unerring skill so that, for example, we laugh at Tim Spite’s Rev. Eli Jenkins, the Welsh equivalent of the Scottish poet William McGonnegal, but we never doubt the man’s sincerity, just as Loren Horsley’s Polly Garter (played for once without sentimentality) is both an Earth Mother and a comic local tart.

Ray Henwood speaks the Narrator’s speeches exquisitely and he is devilishly funny as the scheming, malevolent Mr Pugh as he reads Lives of the Great Poisoners at the dinner table to the disgust of his intended victim, Mrs Pugh, played by Jude Gibson who brings a wonderful warm-heartedness to Mrs Cherry Owen and a comic deviousness to Mrs Dai Bread.

It’s the sophisticated simplicity of the acting – watch, for example, Tim Spite readjust his clothing (trousers high for Organ Morgan, jersey lifted breast high for Gossamer Benyon) and his face and body for each of his characters – and the attention to the clarity of speech that gives this production of Under Milk Wood that extra fillip to give the over-familiar a freshness that makes well-known lines, speeches and scenes sparkle once again. A delight and not to be missed.


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A classic worth revisiting

Review by John Smythe 13th Aug 2006

Having asked Circa “Why do The Rivals?” it’s fair to ask Downstage, “Why Under Milk Wood?” The answer is that is  always relevant for us to explore private perceptions and obsessions against their flipside of public propriety. As long as ‘thought police’ attempt to make us conform to their religious, social or political notions of correctness, this Dylan Thomas classic will speak to us, in a rich flow of wondrously wrought language, what’s more, which adds great value to the experience.

Certainly communities have changed radically since the radio play for voices was first performed and recorded in 1953. In fact the small Welsh seaside culture it explores was quaint and old fashioned even then. As with our own poets of the era (Baxter, Glover, Fairburn et al), one of the sparks that ignited Dylan Thomas’s creativity came from resisting the demand to conform.

Under Milk Wood had a long evolution. When the BBC commissioned a talk in 1944, Thomas drew on a surrealist story he’d written in 1935: The Orchards, telling “the stories of the reverend madmen in the Black Book of Llareggub”. The result, Quite Early One Morning, explores the sleeping and waking dreams of the people of Llareggub as they emerge into their daily routines.

The success of his broadcast inspired Thomas to extend the work. Feeling it needed a plot, he planned The Town Was Mad, which would contrast his fictional Llareggub with the surrounding ‘sane’ world. The individuality and freedom of the town’s eccentrics would be tested in a trial whereby the ‘sane’ world of self-sacrificing conformists would demand that Llareggub be declared an ‘insane area’. The eccentrics would defend themselves but when the Prosecution summed up with a detailed description of an ideally sane town, they would withdraw their defence and beg to be cordoned off from the ‘sane’ world as soon as possible.

But as he went about writing it, Thomas went off the plot-driven idea. With the support of his BBC producer, he reverted to the Early One Morning schemata, extending it to a full midnight-to-midnight timeframe. Its first try-out and then a recording took place in New York, with Thomas himself taking part. Back in Britain, and urged to complete it without delay, he did so by the end of October 1953. A month  later, in New York, he died of alcohol poisoning and medical misadventure from a morphine overdose. Dylan Thomas never heard the BBC production with a distinguished all Welsh cast, first broadcast in January 1954.

At Downstage, steeped in this history and with Ray Henwood’s cultural insights on tap, Rachel More and her designers and cast give the play a richly textured rendition. Bringing just enough visual enhancement to the text to justify its transition to stage, they resist the temptation to act out every detail, allowing our imaginations to remain fully engaged.

Beginning in literal bible black, rendering us as blind as Captain Cat, the voluptuous language takes precedence before the people and setting are slowly revealed through the shadow and light of Lisa Maul’s exquisite lighting design. Initially isolated on Nicole Cosgrove’s modular set of lime-cast rostra with dark wooden floorboards – a hammock here, a chain swing there, all clustered like the village itself – the four actors move from simple narration and verbal evocation to being the 69 people of Llareggub, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.

Many are dead, of course, but still alive in the hearts and minds of the living. If sanity is defined as the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, some of them may be borderline cases, although most seem to know their dreams – of poisoning the wife, having love requited, or sinning “until I blow up” – will never come to fruition.

Ray Henwood anchors the show as First Voice and Captain Cat, and brings a special relish to Mr Pugh, conniving to poison Jude Gibson’s compulsively censorious Mrs Pugh, but of course he never will.

Gibson’s many characters include Mrs Ogmore Prichard, who most represents the demands of conservative conformity. While most of her work is well modulated, she does lay this one on a bit thick at times, leaving little for us to discover.

Tim Spite knows how less can be more as he shifts subtly from character to character: No-Good Boyo who wants to be good but no-one will let him; the tragic publican Sinbad Sailors, in hopeless love with Gossamer Beynon; Mae Rose-Cottage who loves to sin …

Loren Horsley likewise shifts from child to adult, beauty to gossipy battleaxe, with imperceptible ease. Her Gossamer Beynon epitomises the play’s central conflict – all prim, proud and proper on the outside, hungry for Sinbad in the inside. But does either really want it to happen in reality or are they more in love with their fantasies?

Enhancing the action at the piano, and punctuating proceedings with sound effects, musician Michael Nicolas Williams completes the on-stage ensemble with his original compositions.

In this finely judged production, Under Milk Wood is certainly a classic worth revisiting.

Footnote:  Exhorted to read ‘Llareggub’ backwards, in a programme note, I wondered why this had never occurred to me before. Web-searches indicate this is the original and accepted spelling. So why had I not realised? Then I looked at my 1964 Aldine paperback reprint of the 1954 publication, to discover the town spelt ‘Llaregyb’. Was this a form of censorship – and if so, by whom?


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