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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Under Milk Wood
Olivier Theatre Summer 2021

There will be those who will enjoy the Nationalís production of Under Milk Wood, for the lyrical playfulness of Dylan Thomas, for the opportunity to see such fine actors as Michael Sheen and simply for the chance of a live in-person performance. They may even appreciate Sian Owenís framing device of a care home setting.

The device gives us an angry, possibly drunk Owain Jenkins played by Michael Sheen arriving at a care home wanting some kind of conversation with his father Richard Jenkins (Karl Johnson), one of its residents. We don't know what the rage is about and for most of the show Richard shows no reaction to anything.

There are three major problems with this device. It lacks any kind of drama, the dialogue is pedestrian and its timing at the end of a year in which the government has been accused of causing many of the 38 thousand COVID deaths in care homes seems wrong-headed. I suspect those claiming government abuse of care homes will not find this romanticised view of such places at this time useful.

The poem Under Milk Wood in its radio incarnation of 1954 is an impressionistic fairy tale of amusing characters, that conjures up a cosy dream-like world of the past. Listeners are led not so much by the story or the drama but by the music of mood, humour and language.

However, a nearly two-hour stage production needs story and drama. I think Michael Sheen knows thereís a problem. He races into the poem still the angry care home visitor. Like Henry V urging his troops into battle, he climbs atop a chair and later the raised edge of the stage waving his arms in the air, breathless with the need for action.

Yet his speeches are faced with a stage littered with the sleeping bodies of care home residents, who are occasionally magically raised like puppets into the fleeting role of a comic character from Milk Wood, before shuffling off the stage pushing some care home trolley.

Early on I counted six audience members fleeing the show, three of them on the other side of the stage, adding a bit of drama by wandering up and down the aisles in search of an exit.

Lyndsey Turnerís production of Under Milk Wood is misguided. The framing device is a distraction, the angry tone of delivery out of step with the innocent pitch of the poemís cartoon sketches and the new frame story, if one exists at all, lacks any kind of focus. All this makes the play very tiring indeed. No wonder those care home residents fell asleep.  

Keith McKenna

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Review of  Under Milk Wood - National Theatre 2021

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