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Review: Under Milk Wood, National Theatre, starring Michael Sheen

REVIEW: The National Theatre's production of Under Milk Wood, starring Michael Sheen, was much anticipated and turned into a mixed experience.

Under Milk Wood poster
Back at the National Theatre for Under Milk Wood

It was much anticipated partly because it's my first trip to the National since before the pandemic, in part because I haven't seen Michael Sheen on stage since Hamlet at the Young Vic and partly because I've never seen Under Milk Wood before.

The play is framed in a care home setting, the Milk Wood story, to help an elderly man with dementia remember. We are transported to Welsh fishing village Llareggub (bugger all backwards 🙂) at night, where the residents sleep, their dreams revealed by the narrator (Michael Sheen).

We then follow them into the day and their inner thoughts, which reveal their true feelings - longing, revenge, desire, hope, contentment, frustration, joy and more.

The extraordinary and ordinary

Their thoughts are an extraordinary, emotionally colourful soundtrack to the ordinariness of their day. A day punctured by routine and often mundane tasks.

Michael Sheen's narrator tells us their thoughts using Dylan Thomas' vivid, lyrical language, sometimes with the ensemble playing along as the villagers, sometimes not.

And this is where my experience of watching the play was mixed.

At the National Theatre for Under Milk Wood programme
Front row seats and a free programme

There is quite a bit of work for the audience to do at times in visualising what is going on. And I confess I struggled with it.

When I was 'in' it, it was incredibly evocative and vibrant and transported me right into the village and the people's lives there.

But sometimes, it was like the words were washing over me, and it was hard to get any purchase on the narrative. 

It felt like I was trying to find a particular radio station, successfully tuning in for a spell before losing the signal, which isn't helpful when there are so many different characters. A lot is going on in the village of Llareggub.

There were times when I could laugh at the humour in Under Milk Wood and others when I realised my mind had wandered.

Hard to visualise

I find it hard to visualise stuff - I'm the same with novels when places and landscapes are described. So none of this is a reflection necessarily on the production.

The ensemble, which included Karl Johnson and Sian Phillips, was superb in flitting between characters and vignettes of stories.

And Michael Sheen was in his element, performing with such gusto, you feel his energy even when he's the casual observer.

Was the framing device useful? It was a nice idea. It wrong-footed me initially because the style of dialogue was so different from Dylan Thomas lyrical script and the transition felt like a leap.

Sort of like suddenly tuning your ear into Shakespeare.

When we return to the care home at the end, there is a poignant gesture between Michael Sheen's character and Karl Johnson's. For me, that resonated not so much for the story but how I felt about being back at the National.

Have you seen Under Milk Wood, what did you think?

Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre until July 24. And below is my 60-second video review recorded after I left the theatre. You can find more of my theatre stuff across my social media channels: YouTube channel Facebook page or Instagram.

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Covid safety measures at the National Theatre

The theatre has good Covid-safety measures in place. You aren't allowed into the building until your allocated time, and you go straight to your seats (I did miss the pre-performance atmosphere in the foyer but better to be safe).

There is hand-sanitiser as you arrive, track and trace, a one-way system for getting to your seat, mask-wearing and properly socially distanced seats. 

It never feels crowded or risky. In fact, I felt much, much safer than I did going to the pub for something to eat last week.

Some other theatre stuff to read

During lockdown, I started walking to some of my favourite London theatres as an excuse to reminisce about some of my experiences and favourite productions:

Southwark Playhouse and my stage debut with Freddie Fox.

Bridge Theatre and my conversion to the groundling experience.

Arcola Theatre and a memory of a famous Friend and a friendship.