Under Milk Wood

Hamilton Town Hall (Front Row Theatre)


By Dylan Thomas

Amateur production

I suppose Under Milk Wood is something of a classic now. More than 50 years after its first production it is still appearing in the repertoires of theatre groups across the world. Its appeal is obvious: an imaginary town peopled with dotty and memorable characters who speak a wild and luxuriant prose that forever hovers on the verge of poetry. No wonder it is till tempting amateur and professional groups to attempt to stage what was originally, and remains essentially, a radio play for voices.

This is not to suggest that the play is not stageable there have been many fine productions in the past. However, the challenges are huge and a director needs to find a way of embodying the voices without destroying the momentum of the piece. Robert Allen for Front Row Theatre has tried some unusual effects the use of marionettes for the dead characters is particularly interesting, and the occasional involvement in the action of one of the two narrators works well.

The cast needs to be versatile to present the 70-odd characters of the town convincingly, and Allen’s cast works very hard. However, their job is made much more difficult by the decision to have them make separate entrances and exits, even when only one or two lines of dialogue are required. The consequent slowing-down of the pace of the play to allow for blackouts (never very complete in halls like this) in which characters attempt to shuffle on and off unobtrusively cannot help but ruin the rhythm of the piece.

An effective set with a silhouette of the wood behind the town establishes the mood well, the narrators are a pleasure to listen to, and some of the characters are brought effectively to life. Mr and Mrs Pugh munching cold grey cottage pie in their dining-vault as he dreams of murdering his sour-faced wife: Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard still nagging her long-dead husbands: the blind Captain Cat enjoying the sounds of children playing: Polly Garter singing of her one true love: Bessie Bighead weaving her lonely way through the town and Mary Ann Sailors who praises the Lord who made porridge all these live on long after the play is over, and each audience member will have their own favourites.

It is a big ask for a community theatre to bring off a piece such as this totally successfully, and if the result is something of a curate’s egg quite good in places there are lots of people in Brisbane who will nevertheless welcome the opportunity to immerse themselves in Thomas’s language and re-acquaint themselves with his characters.

In his original review over 50 years ago the critic Kenneth Tynan described the play as “a tumult of living” and talked about “the manic riot” of Thomas’s prose. The test of a classic play is that it will stand the test of time and its qualities will shine through the imperfections of any individual production. In both these regards Under Milk Wood succeeds.

Directed by Robert Allen

Playing until 28 May 2005: Fri-Sat 7:30pm, Matinee Sat 14 2:00pm

Running time: total including interval 2 hours

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Fri 6th May 2005)