Tuesday, 25 March 2014

"Under Milk Wood", Swansea Grand Theatre, 20/3/2014

For the centenary of Dylan Thomas' birth and the 60th anniversary of his "play for voices' Clwyd Theatr Cymru are touring "Under Milk Wood", although as someone who resides in Glasgow I had to make my way back to the old home town to catch it as the production is not visiting Scotland.
The production is directed by Terry Hands and is a revival of his production of 2000. Given the play was written for the radio the production is lively, extremely funny, visually exciting, full of life and is a beautifully evocative use of Thomas' words.

Hands' direction is more than assured and is quite sublime. Hands has made a play for the ears a true play for the stage although the language is never sacrificed for the visual splendour of the vibrant physical action which utilised such theatrical devices as mime amongst all the physical interaction between the actors who also supplied all the sound effects. The pace of the piece was well handled and varied with the staging controlled and manipulated by an expert director who was able to handle such changes quite subtly. Hands' has brought out the humour, passion, melancholy and sexuality that lies within Thomas' vivacious text, which follows the lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub over the course of a single day, and created a visual production that works in tandem with the words to create a satisfying theatrical unity.

The design by Martyn Bainbridge was elegant yet simple and atmospheric with Hands' own lighting complimenting the overall effect and becoming a subtle character in itself allowing the shifting of time and mood to be conveyed effortlessly, together with Bainbridge's moving sun. The costumes are simple period affairs with most of the cast barefooted, evoking the sense of sleepwalking through a dream.

What helps makes this a true theatrical experience is the production's reliance on the actors, most of whom perform numerous characters, which is totally appropriate. Whilst some characterisation may be seen as heightened (but then so is the play) and some acting choices somewhat "obvious" they are nevertheless appropriate and suited to the piece. But the choices are also varied between each actor and the differing characters most of them perform. Indeed each character is rich and full of life. There was, appropriately, an excellent variety of voices on display - be it between the actors or the varying characters that they play. Likewise the use of actors of varying ages portraying people of all ages (from children to the elderly) was engaging and exciting and fresh. This fact also enabled the stage to never feel or look too cluttered unless it were a deliberate directorial choice. The playing of different characters also allowed the actors numerous opportunity to stretch and use their talents and ranges. Above all there was a wonderful sense of enjoyment from the actors who became another audience when they themselves were not in a particular scene, laughing and listening to those who were performing.
Owen Teale as First Voice has a rich vocal tone that is evocative of Richard Burton but at once quite individual whilst Christian Patterson's Second Voice is a lovely contrast and each weave in and out of the action with aplomb.
It seems unfair to single out any performer in such an ensemble piece but Sara Harris-Davies, Steven Meo and Caryl Morgan certainly get full use out of some of the funniest material.

Given the nature of "Under Milk Wood" it can be a very delicate piece to stage. My first encounter with Thomas' best know work was when my Secondary school put on a production. Given my young age I can barely recall any of it except that it was funny, a little saucy and the tiered set was blue. In my university days I saw a production by the Wales Theatre Company, directed by Michael Bogdanov, which was a rather laboured affair and stilted and sober a production for my liking. The Clwyd Theatr Cymru production is everything I could have wished for, however, making brilliant use of the vocal prowess of Thomas' whilst understanding that, as a piece of theatre, it also has to be visual. The production is also full of clarity, allowing each moment onstage to be understood and appreciated.

It is interesting to note that this play has made me re-evaluate my cultural identity; as a proud Welshman residing in Scotland, I've never really thought about what it is to be Welsh. Many of my country folk have been dwarfed by English attitudes which have gone on to be seen as 'British' - the whole stiff-upper-lip, solid attitude which has become little more than a stereotype. "Under Milk Wood", in its heightened way, shows what the Welsh really are; creative, passionate and full of life. And it's nice to be reminded of the Welsh-within, especially given that the play's director is English. Indeed, I recall in my youth the attitudes we held which were then tempered by the 'British' ideals. In these days were cultural identity is more freely expressed it's been a joy to rediscover the truth of oneself. And it's a shame the production won't be visiting London anytime soon ...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

"The Play That Goes Wrong", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/3/14

A review written for Backstage Pass:


     Amateur theatre has been a staple for many years and has spawned many a fine professional actor. It is, for many, an introduction to the vast world that exists beyond the proscenium arch and is both admired and frowned upon by some who work in the theatrical industry. Why the latter? Because it can so easily reduce art into something far less ... savoury, with cliché being the prime ingredient of many a poor production. "Amateur" can be a word to instil dread into many an audience member given that there do exist am-dram companies whose stage productions reek of "cheap" and "shoddy" workmanship - both in the onstage and offstage departments. Indeed, YouTube is full of footage of amateur theatre's mishaps.
     It is all of the above that "The Play That Goes Wrong" attempts to confront and what writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (who all feature in the cast) have cleverly done is to take the subject of the classic whodunit and spoofed it to the nth degree. But beyond that they have created a fictional company, "Cornley Polytechnic", who are presenting the whodunit "The Murder At Haversham Manor" replete with all the heightened clichés one could imagine of a terrible am-dram company: the wannabe starlet, the nervous first-timer, the seasoned performer are all present. Even the "stage technicians" are incompetent and as the title of the evening's proceedings suggests the play does not go off without a hitch, indeed even before the play starts proper we see the "backstage crew" attempting to prepare for the performance, somewhat unsuccessfully.
     In many ways "The Play That Goes Wrong" is a wonderful homage to all who have ever taken part in amateur dramatics. Even whilst lampooning the all too recognisable characters present within such companies (and they do exist!) they are being honoured by being portrayed and played in so earnest a manner. Given that the "play" is falling apart around them the "actors" and "crew" of the play within a play valiantly struggle on, proving the truth behind the axiom, "the show must go on"!
The script is sharp, witty and hilarious whilst the design creates the perfect environment for this third-rate amateur company. The direction of Mark Bell is crisp and taut whilst the excellent ensemble (onstage and off) perform perfectly. Indeed, it is unfair to single any one performer out given that this really is an ensemble piece. There are one or two jokes that were stretched almost beyond their limit but these are not enough to dampen the energy and spirits that are present throughout. And it doesn't really matter that the "plot" of "The Murder At Haversham Manor" is somewhat obscured by the antics occurring, indeed this lends to the air of chaos that abounds and there were plenty of moments where the audience erupted into spontaneous applause and hardly a moment where laughter was not forthcoming. And laughter is what this play is really about.