Under Milk Wood at National Theatre review - Michael Sheen casts a spell in this gorgeous day in the life

·2-min read
Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen (Johan Persson)
Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen (Johan Persson)

A charismatic Michael Sheen is part showman, part shaman in this staging of Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio play, conjuring a Welsh town into lyrical, beguiling life with mostly older actors on a bare stage. Lyndsey Turner’s production marks a triumphant reopening for the National’s Olivier Theatre, where the audience now sits on all sides, a configuration that lends itself to simple production values and a deeper communion between actors and onlookers.

It begins oddly, though, in the middle-distant past with Sheen as an angry, wild-bearded writer visiting his demented father (Karl Johnson, heartbreaking) in a care home. Thomas’s poetry is the only way to reach the old man, and his fellow residents are duly summoned to incarnate the townsfolk of the author’s fictional Llareggub (“bugger all” backwards). It’s an awkward framing device with a serious point: to stress the importance of community and memory, and salute the talents and rich lives of elder generations.

The women of Milk Wood (Johan Persson)
The women of Milk Wood (Johan Persson)

But what a lovely, bittersweet spell this show casts. Sheen, like Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, grew up in Port Talbot, an hour from Laugharne where Thomas lived and partially wrote the play. He has the contours of the language and the landscape in his head, and an orator’s relish for Thomas’s evocative phrasing. We first see Llareggub asleep, “starless and bible black” and meet its inhabitants in their dreams.

There’s blind Captain Cat, remembering drowned shipmates and “the one love of his sea life that was sardined with women”. The sweetshop keeper and the haberdasher pine for each other, as do the butcher’s prim daughter and the rough barman of the Sailor’s Arms, where the clock’s always set at opening time. Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard keeps the ghosts of her two husbands close but doesn’t want guests in her B&B “breathing on the chairs”. Then there are the names: Organ Morgan; Nogood Boyo; the bigamous baker Dai Bread.

Siân Phillips as Polly Garter (Johan Persson)
Siân Phillips as Polly Garter (Johan Persson)

It can sound whimsical, but this is a salty town full of passion, gossip, drunkenness and jealousy. The sexual politics are very much of their time. Women tend to be battleaxes, spinsters or sluts. It’s poignant, though, to see Siân Phillips, 88, as Polly Garter, crooning over lost one-night stands and the latest of many babies. One never forgets that most of the cast are in possession of a free bus pass; indeed, a certain slowness of movement adds to the dream-like nature of the show.

With a plethora of characters and a whole day crammed into 95 minutes it can be hard to keep track, and some performances are better than others. Occasionally, it’s very clear this was written for radio. But these are small complaints about a show so rich and moving, that puts Sheen, Johnson and Phillips on stage together.

National Theatre, Olivier, to July 24; nationaltheatre.org.uk

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