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Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas at Wiltons Music Hall

Guy Masterson told the audience at least twice on press night that he’s been doing this for thirty years: ‘this’ being performances of Under Milk Wood (he has done other things in that time, for the record), and when he says he doesn’t tire of doing it, it’s an entirely believable statement based on his mesmerising and quick tempo performance. His narration doesn’t, unlike many single-performer shows, provide a single perspective, as it is supplemented by taking on a large number of characters – well into double figures – and voicing them all.

Guy Masterson in Under Milk Wood. Credit John Robert Paisley.
Guy Masterson in Under Milk Wood. Credit John Robert Paisley.

Perhaps it was worth pointing out that what the audience was witnessing was the culmination of thirty years’ work – the lighting design is, to use what has become a much-maligned phrase these days, simple and effective, particularly in the way in which a character’s shadow can loom large when the occasion calls for it. The sound design, meanwhile, is nothing short of superb, with its ability to make it clear if, for instance, someone is talking to someone else outside or in a confined space. This production provides one of those occasions where background music and sound effects enhance the storytelling aspects of the performance rather than prove unnecessary or even distracting.

This is not, alas, the easiest of stories to follow, partly because there are so many characters to bear in mind and keep up with. I hope I’m not doing too much of a disservice to the play to liken it to a soap opera, in the sense that what is described and dramatized is a day in the life of a wide range of people who all live in close proximity to one another – in this case, the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub. Spell the word backwards and it reads ‘bugger all’: the play, indeed, portrays the opposite of that, with – as one might reasonably expect – various comings and goings at various times of the day, and even in the privacy of people’s own homes, where there isn’t at a surface level anything other than the normal daily routine going on, there are still people’s thoughts, gloriously voiced.

It’s an unusual play, and it doesn’t technically have an interval, though Masterson is kind enough to put one in, perhaps to allow himself to take a breather as well as the audience. There aren’t any scene divisions either, but a continuous onward journey through a twenty-four-hour period. The humour in the show is sometimes dark, but mischievous rather than acerbic, although I take the point that the play was first published almost seventy years ago. On the whole, it didn’t feel like a period piece of theatre, and because I was (subconsciously, with hindsight) seeing it through contemporary lenses, I found the non-existence in Llareggub of social media and mobile telephony really rather refreshing.

At times, it’s exhausting even to sit and watch, as Masterson bounces around between characters, portraying, amongst other things, couples arguing and children indulging in playground bullying (or at least peer pressure). Yes, it’s unpleasant, but it provides the emotional depth that would otherwise be absent if absolutely everyone got along like peas in a pod. There are tongue twisters thanks to the poetry of the play’s author Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) which Masterson glides through seemingly effortlessly. Finally, he wears pyjamas throughout (there are, apparently, several pairs at his disposal in his dressing room) and performs barefoot. But I found it impossible to feel sleepy in this energetic and enjoyable production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2023… One day in the life of ‘Llareggub’ – a fictional sea-town somewhere in Wales… All 69 of Dylan Thomas’ wonderfully ebullient inhabitants in his timeless masterpiece are assiduously recreated in an amazing feat of memory and physical virtuosity.

Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas
Performed by Guy Masterson
Presented by Theatre Tours International Ltd
Directed by Tony Boncza (with original direction by George Dillon)
Original music and Soundscape by Matt Clifford

Wilton’s Music Hall, Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB
Dates: May 9-13 2023

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