Knowledge and experience of the works of Dylan Thomas is something I sadly lack, a gaping hole in my cultural development that I deeply regret but have not yet got around to doing anything about.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I approached this major new production of the writer’s most famous work which marks the 100th anniversary of Thomas’ birth.

Under Milk Wood may have been the final work produced by an artist cruelly taken from the world at the absurdly young age of 39 but it was the perfect place for a Thomas novice to start under the guidance of artistic director Terry Hands and with a cast of familiar Mold faces including Owen Teale, Kai Owen and Steven Meo.

A richly rewarding evening it proved to be, too, starting with the famous opening monologue that even I had heard incidental snatches from over the years, delivered in the sonorous tones of Teale who proved a charismatic presence throughout as the First Voice narrator.

But I must admit it was also quite a frustrating one to begin with because I found myself hanging on by my fingertips to the power and imagery of the language, convinced I was missing so much of the texture and detail of the poetry and the extraordinary array of amazing characters that flitted before my eyes, entirely due to my unfamiliarity with the material.

This sense deepened when witnessing the reactions of many fellow audience members for whom this was quite obviously not the first time they had encountered the play and who were picking up on the subtleties and nuances of Thomas’ turns of phrase, much to their immense delight.

Gradually, though, I found myself increasingly captivated by those aforementioned characters who populate the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub (read it backwards) and with whom we become acquainted during the 24 hours of a spring day.

Steven Meo, Simon Nehan, Richard Elfyn, Kai Owen, Caryl Morgan and Sara Harris-Davies in the kissing game scene from Under Milk Wood at Clwyd Theatr Cymru.
Steven Meo, Simon Nehan, Richard Elfyn, Kai Owen, Caryl Morgan and Sara Harris-Davies in the kissing game scene from Under Milk Wood at Clwyd Theatr Cymru.
 

There are apparently 68 parts in the play, here played by a cast of 11 whom Hands keeps on stage from start to finish on a sparse but inventive set incorporating a few chairs, a ladder and a semi-circular platform, with a miniature version of the entire village as a backdrop.

So it is the very definition of an ensemble piece and impossible to come to know every single character although every actor gets at least one moment to shine such as Katie Elin-Salt’s beautiful but plaintive solo song as unwed mother Polly Garter, Meo’s typically inspired comic turn as publican Sinbad Sailors and the charming romance between Mr Pugh (Richard Elfyn) and Myfanwy Price (Caryl Morgan).

There is also a terrifically funny scene where virtually the entire cast get to play children engaging in a kissing game where the girls always hold the upper hand over the bashful boys.

So in the end, the sheer quality of this production managed to overcome my ignorance and, most crucially, left me wanting more.

The Clwyd Theatr Cymru programme editor admirably assisted in this process by printing Thomas’ poem Fern Hill which I instantly devoured and now I definitely want to experience Under Milk Wood all over again, knowing there are still so many riches left to discover.

And I can think of no higher compliment to pay to any theatre presentation.

Under Milk Wood can be seen at Clwyd Theatr Cymru until March 8.

 

Alternative view of Under Milk Wood by Jo Henwood

Brought up in Thomas's 'ugly, lovely town' of Swansea, a stone's throw from his birthplace in Cwmdonkin Drive, unlike Michael Green I have been immersed in the revered Welsh poet's words since I could string a sentence together.

I even went to the same school, metamorphosised from the Swansea Boys' Grammar School into the comprehensive Bishop Gore, and spent much more time of my time in lessons than he ever did. When I was in the sixth form, the school's tercentenary was a celebration of Thomas's works in which I recall reciting the opening: To begin at the beginning. Legend has it that the first draft of this play was written while he was still a student there.

So when I pitch up to a full house at Clwyd Theatr Cymru I am one of those people who is able to sing along with the rhyme rich, alliterative, onomatopoeiac words.  But I know what's coming - only last week I told my husband off for reading at the table, adding Mrs Pugh's ascerbic 'Only pigs read at table.'  Remarkably he replies:  'Pigs can't read', not realising that he is quoting a grand master.  I reply 'I know one that can' under my breath. 

My auntie in New Zealand (Swansea born and bred) has a bush in her garden christened Polly Garter - I think its Latin name sounds similar -  and when I have trouble growing plants in my shaded garden, I hear Polly's 'nothing grows in our garden, only washing, and babies.'  I personally have grown two of the latter.

It's as if Owen Teale (First Voice) with his mellifluous melody is inviting me in to a family party of my mum's relatives in West Wales.  I know everybody (or have heard of them) and over the babble I catch snippets of the latest gossip - pity Mrs Jones (Top House) is not there.  She really did exist in Carmarthen and as a 10-year-old I always wondered if this was just because another Mrs Jones lived in the bottom house.

I try to concentrate on the actors (after all I am supposed to be writing a review) but it is not about them- it's all about the words.  There were moments of hilarity (a little too much when Simon Nehan brought the house and his fellow actors down with a monologue), moments of pathos (Katie Elin-Salt's beautiful Polly Garter solo about her lost loves) and real insights into the human condition.  At times I just wanted to shut my eyes - the beautifully blonde Sophie Melville was a perfectly sultry Mrs Dai Bread Two (but I need to see her as 'brown as a berry').

I am left wondering if these people still exist - when I was young, they were real.  But now Lily Smalls and Mae Rose Cottage would be texting each other their dreams, Nogood Boyo would share his exploits on Facebook and Captain Cat may well be in a nursing home.

If you, like Michael Green, don't know Thomas's work, go Under Milk Wood to get a taster in this centenary year of his birth.  If, like me, you have been under, in and around Milk Wood, it'll be just like going home.