Julia Bright reviews Under Milk Wood, that dreamy, poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, which is the first production at the National Theatre since Covid-19 shut its doors.

Lyndsey Turner’s inventive production of Under Milk Wood, originally a radio play broadcast in 1954 with Richard Burton unforgettable as the narrator (aka Thomas himself), comes as a shock. A dementia care-home with residents eating, or in some cases not eating, their breakfast and waiting for the postman.

What’s going on? Who are these people?

A fellow at a table piecing a model together, another with a radio clasped to his ear, an old lady and a chatty carer at the breakfast trolley, endless shuffling about….. What was veteran actress Sián Phillips doing amongst this lot, holding a pretend baby in a shawl?

One character seated mostly centre stage begins to stand out, bewildered and confused, his schoolmaster suit perhaps an indication of his previous life. He is Mr Jenkins.

Karl Johnson in Under Milk Wood @ NT (C) Johan Persson
Karl Johnson in Under Milk Wood @ NT (C) Johan Persson

The first twenty minutes or so was a clever theatrical device (dialogue by Sián Owens) – just a tad too long. Suddenly the tempo changes. Michael Sheen (all shaggy curls and baggy trousers), charges on-stage, desperate to visit his old schoolmaster dad – yes, Richard Jenkins. And he is the narrator, Owain Jenkins.

Frustrated by the lack of recognition and silence, he opens up dad’s photo album to jog his memory. Gradually, the characters who peopled the seaside village of Llareggub (bugger all, spelt backwards) are pointed out. And then those heart-stopping first lines are said, “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched, courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

One by one the 36 characters in Dylan’s creation come to life: blind Captain Cat reminiscing about lost ship-mates, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard (with two dead husbands and a germ phobia), icy Mr Pugh intent on poisoning nasty Mrs Pugh at the supper table, and Mog Edwards the tailor and shopkeeper Myfanwy Price secretly in love with each other, music-obsessed Organ Morgan with no time for his wife, mischievous Nogood Boyo and of course poor Polly Garter, with her various dead lovers, impeccably acted by the 88-year-old Sian Phillips.

Cleo Sylvestre and Alan David in Under Milk Wood @ National Theatre
Cleo Sylvestre and Alan David in Under Milk Wood @ National Theatre

As if in a vision the myriad characters criss-cross the stage as the life of Llareggub unfolds and their private dreams and thoughts are revealed. The stage is fully used, yet never crowded as the characters appear and disappear and there is always a compelling vignette to draw your attention as the dramatic lines spill out.

Naturally, there are procedures to follow, quite apart from the audience masking and social distancing throughout. These are politely but strictly enforced. No entry until 50 minutes before the performance and just one entrance with assistants at every point guiding our progress as we noticed closed areas, shut-off stairs, one-ways and, to our disappointment, no bars or eateries open – pre-booked drink and food only.

Michael Sheen leads a splendid team. It’s a huge part which he acts with passion and energy. I just can’t get that Richard Burton with his mellifluous tones out of my head.

Under Milk Wood, National Theatre

Runs till 24 July. For further information, click here. Main image: Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood @ NT (c) Johan Persson.