Soft jazz plays as six figures stroll on to the Tricycle stage and sit on stools amid the seaside debris scattered across the set. As they sit, they fall into a slumber, and when blackness descends in the theatre, it signals the beginning of their day in the land of Dylan Thomas’s imaginary coastal Welsh village of Llareggub, as depicted in his 1953 play for voices, Under Milk Wood.
Aged just 39, Welsh poet Thomas died a few months after Under Milk Wood premiered in New York in May 1953, and never heard it performed on the radio, the medium it was written for. The fact that he continually revised this play for voices until he died indicates that the version we know is not quite as Thomas intended, and yet he left a work packed full of vivid characters and lush descriptions that has been much loved by listeners in the half century since his death.
In this new, simply staged and highly atmospheric production at the Tricycle, director Malcolm Taylor places the focus on Thomas’s words, which are enhanced but not dominated by the eight actors who read them. Philip Madoc and Gareth Kennerley, as First and Second Voice, read Thomas’s narration, which takes the audience on a journey through 24 hours in the life of the inhabitants of Llareggub. Beginning in the dead of night, Thomas introduces us to the locals, personified by the six actors who sit, for the most part, on their stools.
As the day progresses, each of the six plays myriad characters – schoolboy and young lover, married woman and widow, organist and postman, single mother and virgin, disgruntled husband and henpecked ghost – as Thomas lets us into their lives and makes vivid their dreams, desires, fears and eccentricities.
As the actors bring these people to life, you could close your eyes and hear the characters in the voices, set among the seaside sounds of waves lapping and birds singing in the dawn. But that would be to miss Daniel Harvey’s atmospheric lighting, which takes us from early morning to dusk, and the highly expressive faces which speak Thomas’s words.
These creations may be caricatures, and Thomas may be gently mocking the people he has based them on, set in their ways in a backwater village, but there is a touching reality to their stories that balances the humour and makes it clear that this is an homage to Wales written by someone who loved it.