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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Under Milk Wood

Identity Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Poetry-Based Theatre, Theatre

Venue: BOAT


Low Down

Directed by Gary Cook and Nettie Sheridan

This is an exciting production, outdoors and adding a new dimension to our experience. Pace was a little slow in the first act, where the voices don’t pick each other up, and drop a fraction. But this gear-changes and the second act is energy itself, as the day wanes the actors energise and the whole spirit and voicing ups a notch too. It’s beautifully landed. Very warmly recommended.

Voice of a Guide-Book recorded by Phoebe Cook/Tom Mordell
Lighting and tech services by Beverley Grover
Stage Manager: Nettie Sheridan
Set and Sound Design: Gary Cook

Full Cast

Laura Scobie: First Voice
James Doyle: Second Voice, Mr Ogmore, Johnny Cristo
Trefor Levins: Captain Cat, Mr. Waldo
Kane Magee: Mr Mog Edwards, First Drowned, Mr Pugh, Lord Cut-Glass, Dicky
Sam Nixon: Third Neighbour, Polly Garter, Mrs Pugh
Heloise Bliss: Miss Myfanwy Price, Fourth Neighbour, Mae Rose Cottage, Third Woman
Harry Armstrong: Third Drowned, Ocky Milkman, Willy Nilly, Butcher Beynon, Nogood Boyo, Sinbad
Cathy Byrne: Gossamer Beynon, Mary Ann The Sailors, Second Woman
Justine Smith: Mrs Dai Bread Two, Rosie Probert, Wife
Suse Crosby: Fourth Drowned, First Neighbour, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Bessie Bighead
Andrew George: Mr Pritchard, Cherry Owen, Rev Eli Jenkins, Organ Morgan
Charlotte Collingbourne: Second Neighbour, Mrs Cherry Owen, Mrs Willy Nilly, Mrs Organ Morgan
Daisy-Grace Elborn: Fifth Drowned, Matti Richards, Lily Smalls, Gwennie
Rosy Armitage: Mother, Mrs Utah Watkins, Mrs Dai Bread One, Accordionist (indisposed, parts taken and redistributed)

All other parts are played by the ensemble

Till June 24th


Identity Theatre have tackled some strange-adapted things in their time, often succeeding. This though is another matter, and for the most part an ensemble triumph buffeted by winds. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood – directed and produced by Gary Cook and Nettie Sheridan, landing at BOAT – is of course a radio play long-inured to the stage.

The sleepily incandescent tale of the sleepy south-western Welsh town of Llareggub – try spelling that backwards – is based on the area around Kidwelly, perhaps long before 1953, Thomas’ last work. Both subversive and a homage (to Thornton Wilder as we’ll see) it emerges out of the dark to blaze and drop back into the west.

Its lyricism and lack of dramatic velocity, its verbal overlapping from the original productions faithfully rendered to maintain its trance-like state are all necessary for the dream play it is.

The key challenge here – in this beautifully-blocked procession of a town, both personally and diurnally winging from night to night – is being able to hear the actors.  Laura Scobie’s First Voice is perhaps the most mesmerising of all, played heart-out with a gestural clarity that says nearly everything; but key words are buffeted away.

Mics here I think would make all the difference as indeed Pip Cook’s and Tom Mordell’s “voice of the guidebook” suddenly proves as it blasts with all the clarity the physical actors are challenged with.

There’s strong work from the first inhabitant to appear, a centripetal force here marooned in a small eyrie of equipment in the BOAT turf: Trefor Levins blind Captain Cat who hears all and observes the dark,  younger than we’re used to is also herbalist quack and  schoolteacher Mr. Waldo with his gaggle of children. But in a rasp of charactering – he drinks and enjoys an affair with Polly Garter.

One of the winning elements here is the processional: both Neighbours, Dead Neighbours and children, played by members of the company, curl around the BOAT grass, as the sun gently sinks quite obligingly in this midsummer echoing spring, adding a dimension to this production.

Scobie memorably paints Thomas’ lyric prose as the sun slowly ascends, the inhabitants peeping out their lives.  James Doyle as Second Voice fares well with strong-voiced parts, and as one half of the bullied dead husband Mr Ogmore – a double-act with Andrew George’s  Mr Pritchard, as Suse Crosby’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, tyrannises them with their tasks, though dead. “And when you let the sun in, be sure it wipes its shoes!”

Doyle’s Johnny Cristo is happily etched too. Crosby’s Bessie Bighead a simple milking-maid, dropped at the poorhouse, couldn’t be more of a contrast to her Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard. A misshapen girl who visits the grave of the only man who kissed her “when she wasn’t looking, and never again while she always was.”

Kane Magee’s put-down simper-voiced Mr Pugh mixes poisons in his mind for Sam Nixon’s poisonous Mrs Pugh, a delicious double-act to drink neat. 

Nixon’s great part though is Polly Garter, her air-cutting voice and sexy sway blooms with the day touched with deep melancholy as she sings – memorably – “Tom, Dick and Harry were three fine men/and I’ll never have such loving again” with both a resolute celebration and pathos. “Isn’t life a terrible thing – thank God” earns a roar from the audience.

Kane Magee is also roaring mad old Lord Cut-Glass, obsessed with 66 ticking clocks, fining down to young Dicky, too shy to kiss Gwennie but chased for it;  and most memorably Mr Mog Edwards, delighting in haberdashery and Miss Myfanwy Price (Heloise Bliss) his chastely rapt  inamorata, both safe in their mailing innumerable love letters to their happily unconsummated union. Bliss is also latterly 17-year-old Mae Rose Cottage, winningly fey, here kin to fanciful Myfanwy; with her lariat strewing of petals “never been kissed” in the memorable “He loves me… he loves me not…”

Harry Armstrong’s parts are all etched in sepia: Ocky Milkman with his gyrating, active spinning round the stage, watering down the milk so Cat calls it mockingly “dew”; Willy Nilly the postman too (more on him later), Butcher Beynon with his red-beef lusts, would-be-roistering Nogood Boyo, and Sinbad Sailor, somewhere edging back into the dream part of the dream play.

He feels not educated enough for  Cathy Byrne’s prim RP-pleading school ma’am Gossamer Beynon, and how wrong he is, as they hopelessly fail to communicate their desire, differently to the two who hopelessly succeed in so doing, but happily.

Byrne’s Mary Ann The Sailors is by contrast able to take on any sailor, as her profession suggests.Which includes disapproving of her grandson Sinbad’s pursuit of Gossamer, stunting him.

Justine Smith as Rosie Probert taunts Levins’ Cat who wants “to shipwreck in your thighs” though she’s long dead, and begins to forget – a further nod to Thornton Wilder’s 1937 Our Town on which Thomas’ work is modelled. It’s a lyrically winding moment, intensely sad. Smith is also the ‘gypsy’-born and clad, happily bigamous Mrs Dai Bread Two (One was recast due to illness). She summons spirits for others in her crystal ball.

George’s other parts suit his clear diction and slightly patrician air. As the Rev Eli Jenkins he orates a hymn of his own composition, and by contrast as drunken Cherry Owen blithely sure of Charlotte Collingbourne’s Mrs Cherry Owen continual devotion, long soured to rage and sullenness.

Again, near in spirit to Jenkins, George assumes the musician Organ Morgan: “Bach, Bach, always Bach – and after him Palestrina!” as Collingbourne’s Mrs Organ Morgan’s complaint winds like counterpoint – Thomas knew dramatic irony when he sang it – around him, oblivious.

Collingbourne’s other part, Mrs Willy Nilly contends with Armstrong’s Willy Nilly, the postman. Both delight in steaming open the town’s correspondence, where all the love-letters of Price and Edwards are exposed to their gleeful conspiracy.

Daisy-Grace Elborn’s bright Matti Richards, and Gwennie, ruthlessly chasing down young Dicky for a penny or (preferably) kiss (a heltering gleeful cameo), are both children in Mr Waldo’s charge. Her Lily Smalls, Mrs Benyon’s put-upon maid, fantasises rich lovers out of her sad dimensions.

This is an exciting production, outdoors and adding a new dimension to our experience. Pace was a little slow in the first act, where the voices don’t pick each other up, and drop a fraction. But this gear-changes and the second act is energy itself, as the day wanes the actors energise and the whole spirit and voicing ups a notch too. By the time you see this on its second or third night, pace will be bedded in.

My only plea would be micing up. Such fine acting from Scobie, clearly worth catching every nuance of, and a few others, are occasionally lost. You stretch to hear the narrative, one said, and sometimes lose the poetry doing so.

But elsewhere this is beautifully landed, and the set, marooned elements such as Cat’s eyrie and tables, stretches of lace, a table with a phantom-poisoned meal from Mr Pugh as he reads under brown covers Lives of the Great Poisoners (he gets to Crippen) are blazoned with wit. And warmth. Very warmly recommended too.