David White plays blind Captain Cat in Under Milk Wood – photo Sewell Barn Theatre

This is a show that I was looking forward to. With family from South Wales and a fondness for good poetry and fine writing I could not miss it. Writer Dylan Thomas died young, in his late 30s, but left a legacy of poetry and writing that described a vibrant and engaging community in the South Wales villages and towns that he knew well.

Dylan Thomas takes us into a world of human passion, yearning, frailty and death all wrapped up in a wonderfully diverse set of characters that however odd are immediately recognisable and mostly rather lovable. The fame of Under Milk Wood undoubtedly comes from the BBC radio play narrated by Richard Burton, broadcast just weeks after Thomas’s death, where the ‘Play for Voices’ became a landmark of radio drama. Even though the play was broadcast before most of us were born it gave us voices that we grew up with, and an appreciation of the singsong lyrical turn of phrase that make South Wales so appealing.

We may recognise many of the characters and voices that Thomas bequeathed to us, but it is still a challenging work to stage. The Sewell Barn Company have the enthusiasm of amateurs but they set themselves high production standards and this is a remarkably competent and clever production. Director Cassie Tillett takes a cast of twelve on stage who between them give us about sixty distinct characters, each brought to life in small stories and dialogues about a tight community that knows everything about each other in almost claustrophobic detail.

Times have changed since this work was written in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Our endless scope for communication now keeps us all more private and distant and we are no longer tightly constrained by the villages we may live in. Some will find Thomas’s ribaldry and misogyny uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, but it does reflect the way he lived his life, where beer and sex were prominent, even dominant, in his daily habits. His observation of the intricate details of struggling relationships is what makes the play so memorable, with phrases that have become part of our lives. Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard berates her two late husbands with her demands for an immaculate household – ‘and before you let the sun in mind he wipes his shoes’ while Polly Garter makes babies with the married men of the village while thinking only of her lost love ‘little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead’.

The play takes us through one day in the coastal village of Llareggub (try it backwards) from dawn to dusk, looking at life through the dreams of its residents. This cast tell a hundred little tales, all in very reasonable Welsh accents, peeping into every corner of the lives of the villagers, their hopes, desires and despairs. They give us a play that is a lot more sexy than my memories of the sonorous BBC version (which suffered cuts) and brimful of life, love and humour. It reminds me of things from my childhood like ‘kiss-chase’ games which were innocent but would now be deemed actionable, a time when gossip was helped along by the postie and his wife steaming open a few letters before delivering them. A time when working folk could actually afford to go and get sloshed in the Sailors Arms every night.

Although I am tempted to single out some performers for praise I shall not, because this was a team effort and together all this cast gave us a fine performance, moving and engaging. Their clever timing drew out more of the delightful double entendre smut and earthiness which was always in the Thomas text if not the BBC version. The cast inhabited their characters with passion and playfulness, and clearly enjoyed their task and its outcome. There were a few stumbles over the tongue twisting Thomas text in the second half but I put this down to a touch of first night nerves unlikely to reoccur. It is a tricky text, and the timing of famous lines bequeathed by both Thomas and Burton sets a very firm discipline for any subsequent performers. This ‘Play for Voices’ needs to be listened to carefully and heard clearly, and the diction and projection from this cast was perfect throughout, helped by the intimate acoustic of this tiny theatre.

With evening shows between today and 23rd July, and a matinée on the 23rd this is a show you should not miss. A brilliant presentation of a familiar classic which covers every moment of life from birth to death and all the human passions that make our short lives so full. Poignant but life-affirming, this show will send you home smiling and considering a second visit.

© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 14 July 2022

Under Milk Wood plays at the Sewell Barn Theatre 14-16 & 20-23 July 2022 at 7.30pm. Please go to www.sewellbarn.org for booking and further information

The cast of Under Milk Wood – photos from Sewell Barn Theatre