Under Milk Wood

One-man production of Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece brilliantly discombobulates, writes Joanne Savage

'It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent.' So begins Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ s lilting, Ulysses-inspired rendering of life in the Welsh town of Llaregubb, (‘Bugger all’ spelt backwards).

Everyone is dreaming in their beds, all quiet as a domino, the whole town lost to its 'fortywinking hallelujah'. From the outset I am struck by the euphonic beauty and sensuality of the language, and as the play unfolds - moving between voices, characters and fragmented observations - the audience is plunged into a babble of Welsh reality, a tangle of psyches and half-dialogues and rhythms as ineluctable as waves lapping the shore.

Dawn breaks, all rise from their beds; the postman, the policeman, the Reverend, the fancy women, the babies, the rabbit-catcher, the gossips, the fishermen, even the dead dears stir into speech. We stay with them until dusk, through their reveries, chores, garbled exchanges, jokes, deceptions, prayers and movements. They wake from the big seas of their dreams and time passes.

Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, in 1953, one year before his untimely death at the age of 39. In 1954 it was famously recorded as a BBC radio production with Richard Burton as the First Voice, a strong, multiple cast behind him.

It is often considered the Welsh poet’s greatest work, and it’s easy to see why. Its language is full of invention, humour and Joycean pliancy. It is Dylan Thomas at the height of his poetic power. Take, for one small example, his descriptions of Miss Price, dressmaker and sweetshop-keeper, dreaming of her lover:

'Tall as the town clock tower, Samsonsyrup-gold-maned, whacking thighed and piping hot, thunderbolt-bass’d and barnacle breasted, flailing up the cockles with his eyes like blowlamps and scooping low over her lonely loving hotwaterbottled body.'

It is a feast of lilting language, full of word play and metaphoric exuberance. Its overstatement is very, very funny. Mr So-and-so tells his love he will warm up the bed like an electric blanket, he will lie beside her like the Sunday roast – so she can throw away her little Welsh bed socks.

And meanwhile a Mr Pugh is bringing his wife her arsenic tea and weed killer biscuit (he detests her so). Across the way Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is nudging her dead husband in the bed, muttering, 'before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes'.

Guy Masterson’s one-man rendering of the masterwork, directed by Tony Boncza, is such a feat of memory. Standing in his pyjamas with just a chair and a pair of sunglasses on the bare stage, Masterson works his way through some 50 different voices and never misses a word or an inflection.

His singing Welsh delivery is so frenetic that it's hard to catch all the beauty of the language, with its heavy freight of imagery. But his impersonations of so many disparate characters, male and female, camp, prim, pious or drunk, adolescent or elderly, is a triumph.

Masterson sweats from the strain, but keeps to his difficult course. One minute he is an elderly woman doing her knitting, then a 17-year-old girl preening in the mirror, then Mr Ogmore gloomily repeating to his fascistic wife, 'I must put my pyjamas in the drawer marked pyjamas'.

A Bessie Bighead recalls in spinsterish sorrow the only time she had been kissed. Children laugh and sing in the playground. The dead argue with each other and list memories – the smell of parsley, dimples on cheeks, washing on the line, who stole the ormolu clock? Women gather to natter about who’s having a baby, who blacked whose eye, who’s got a new lavender jumper, did you see those dirty, pretty knees? It is discombobulating, schizophrenic and brilliant.

The actor’s attempts to physically embody or project the often heavy sensuality of the language at moments leads to embarrassing levels of crotch-grabbing and gyrating, and he certainly camps-it-up to panto-levels when speaking as some of the female characters. Nevertheless, Guy Masterson pulls it off. Llaregubb’s Babel of voices Is conjured in all its tumultuous, troubling beauty.

For more information on forthcoming productions at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, visit www.theatreatthemill.com.

Joanne Savage