Theatre Review - Under Milk Wood

It's an inspired decision by writer Siân Owen to set the National Theatre’s revival of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (“a drama for voices”, written for radio in 1954) in an old people’s home.

It’s recently been redecorated and the furniture in the day room is under dust sheets. Poor Mr Jenkins (Karl Johnson) has finds himself alone and bewildered in an unfamiliar space.

He is visited by his son Owain (Michael Sheen) who is dismayed by his father’s lack of recognition and apparent dementia. In a desperate attempt to shock the frail old man back into himself they look through a photo album together.

Inspired, Owain begins to regale his father (a former school master) with past tales of their neighbours – their secrets, repressed desires and petty misdemeanours – from the Welsh community of Llareggub (“Bugger all” backwards). As father and son travel back in their minds, the elderly residents in the care home transform before our eyes.

We meet a host of colourful characters and witness their daily dramas. Highlights are the po-faced, disagreeable Mrs Pugh (Cleo Sylvestre) and her husband (Alan David) who has murderous thoughts about his wife and Siân Phillips’ Polly Garter lamenting her lost lovers – Tom, Dick, Harry, and dear little Willy Wee. At one point, the ensemble conjure a herd of cows.

Lyndsey Turner’s impressive production plays in the round, with the audience sitting on all sides. This allows us an intimacy with the actors rarely achieved in the Olivier. It’s thrilling to see a veteran cast light up the stage and Sheen’s passionate narration allows Thomas’ poetic prose to soar once more.

It may feel a rather old-fashioned choice for the National’s grand reopening, but Under Milk Wood reminds us of the comforts of familiarity and community, the joy of listening to others' stories and the rejuvenating power of memory.

Until July 24