The bar room clock of the Sailors Arms in Under Milk Wood has been stuck at opening time for 50 years. It’s also been half a century since Dylan Thomas’ play was the first to be professionally performed at the Watermill Theatre.
For this anniversary revival, actor and impressionist Alistair McGowan takes on the role of Thomas’ all-seeing narrator, as he drops into the vivid dreams and routine daytime lives of the inhabitants of the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub.
McGowan seems to slide in and out of sight, pulling his performance back into the lull of Thomas’ rolling prose. It works well. He wisely avoids trying to mimic Richard Burton’s iconically gruff purr in the BBC’s standard-bearing 1954 radio version. He’s a wandering voice, calmly navigating the effective, dreamlike simplicity of Brendan O’Hea’s staging and its paper-moon aesthetic.
Playing multiple male and female roles, the cast nicely juggle the light and shade of Thomas’ wryly funny yet affectionate portraits of Llareggub’s lovelorn, disgruntled or tragedy-tinged small-town folk. They bring a glint of knowingness that softens the sharper side of the play’s tendency towards frosty wives or lusty maidens. Newcomer Steffan Cennydd is particularly deft with the laughs.
From the likes of Lord Cut-Glass and Polly Garter to Nogood Boyo, Thomas delights in dropping gleefully semi-allegorical names into an earthy fairytale, wrapped up in folk balladry.
But this fluid, multi-level production doesn’t ignore the forlornness underpinning the play’s hypnotic effect. This is a mischievous, wistful lullaby to be enjoyed as the evenings darken.