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Under Milk Wood at the Olivier Theatre | Review

Dylan Thomas’ poetic poignance does not disappoint, strong performances and a well-adapted script make for a mostly compelling experience. While it may lose its footing in the middle, the opening and final 20 minutes are testaments to the Welsh poet’s love song to the slow tragedy of dementia.

Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood @ NT (c) Johan Persson.
Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood @ NT (c) Johan Persson.

The show is set in a dementia wing of a care home – scared for his father, Owain Jenkins’ (Michael Sheen) disruptive anxiety disturbs an otherwise quiet morning. Jenkins is struck by overwhelming terror as he attempts to reconnect with a father who doesn’t recognise him. Poetry aids him, taking the audience through the vibrant retelling of the magical Under Milk Wood. And this is how we spend the middle third of the play, reliving and embodying the patchy nostalgia of childhood. Thomas’ poetry is warm and playful, and while it does hold back on the comedy and lean into the melancholy, this is fitting for the most part.

I lost my grandmother to dementia today, so this was close to home, but just as in the play, the poetry and eloquence were healing. While this was a play with an incredibly specific target audience, people with parents in care homes, it is relatable – there was a litany of moments I had seen my own grandmother go through. Dementia can be as disorienting for those with as those in their immediacy, just in a different way, and this show speaks to that. It handles this sensitive topic with delicacy and elegance.

The performances are strong, Sheen is captivating and fluidly demonstrates both how we can find solace in poetry but also how your parent no longer recognising you can be utterly dismantling. His father Mr Jenkins anchors the piece in lost wisdom, a testament to how less is often more. The ensemble is good for the most part but are occasionally a little flat and aren’t necessarily on stage for any reason, perhaps this is to do with dementia. Susan Brown stands out with an ability to move rapidly through several convincing characterisations.

My criticism of this show comes from the lack of risk taken. The cast are all safe bets, but the writing is undeniably excellent, and this is all deserving of praise. That being said, there were moments where it could have veered into the less naturalistic, and explored through less straightforward means the feeling of losing touch with reality, while it did this in less explicit ways, it became repetitive at times. Some of the more murky allusions and imagery in Thomas’s writing was brushed off as the musings of a dementia patient and this left room for exploration.

It also lost its momentum through the middle third, and what had been magic immersion became an embellished poetry reading. This did pull me out of it at times, it established itself, intention and style, and got stuck; the struggle of the play was in the relationship between father and son and this was lost in the middle.

Overall, this play was beautiful to watch given the day I have had. While it may have played it safe and missed out on what would have given it more nuance, but it was undeniably of high quality and certainly worth it.

It’s great to be back at the National.

3 Star Review

Review by Tom Carter

A community is sleeping. If you listen closely, you can hear their dreams.

The retired sea captain yearning for his lost love.
The landlady living in terror of her guests.
A father who can no longer access his memories.
A son in search of redemption.

As they awake to boiled eggs and the postman, the residents of a small Welsh village juggle old secrets and new realities.

Michael Sheen, Karl Johnson and Siân Phillips feature in the acting company breathing new life into Dylan Thomas’ poetic masterpiece. Lyndsey Turner directs.

CAST
Gillian Elisa
Michael Elwyn
Kezrena James
Karl Johnson
Andrew Macbean
Lee Mengo
Anthony O’Donnell
Siân Phillips
Gaynor Morgan Rees
Michael Sheen
Cleo Sylvestre

Production team
Director Lyndsey Turner
Set and Costume Designer Merle Hensel
Lighting Designer Tim Lutkin
Sound Design and additional compositions Donato Wharton
Composer Edward-Rhys Harry
Movement Director Imogen Knight
Associate Director Tom Bellerby

Under Milk Wood
by Dylan Thomas
additional material by Siân Owen
16 June–24 July 2021
Running Time: approx. 1 hour and 55 mins, no interval
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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