Under Milk Wood

It’s the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, and there are a fair few events happening in celebration. I got on the train to visit Cardiff, and witness the new touring production of Under Milk Wood, Dylan’s ‘play for voices’ widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Originally produced as a radio play in 1954, this new staged version is directed by Terry Hands, who has wisely acknowledged that the strength of the play lies in its language and relies on a simple set with a cast of thirteen taking on the roles of the 60 or so residents of Llareggub. Martyn Bainbridge’s spiralling design evokes the seaside town, while the clock above the stage shows the passing of time from morning to night.

All the actors are outstanding, but I would single out Owen Teale whose mastery of Thomas’ rich tongue-twisting language is complete. I also liked Katie Elin-Salt as she sang Polly Garter’s poignant song. The play is certainly worth travelling for – but it is touring all over the UK, so there is no excuse for not catching it.

Border Tales

The Place is a London-based centre for dance, and I attended a performance of Luca Silvestrini’s Border Tales. Performed by Protein Dance, it is designed as a commentary on assumptions surrounding immigration. The characters come from different countries, cultures and traditions, and the piece shows how they all interact in a world where assumptions abound and people are judged.

It centres around a party held by a man who wants to try and welcome people but ends up making painfully stereotypical assumptions about each of the individuals. Interestingly, they are all equally bad at judging how others behave.

Though occasionally moralistic, the performance is hugely enjoyable, funny, witty and intelligent, with – most importantly – fabulous dancing.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole

If there was an award for the best play title ever, I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole would certainly be a strong contender. I admit that the title, plus the promise of real piglets on stage, convinced me to book. I don’t think the show quite lived up to its premise, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

Rodrigo García’s monologue is performed with gusto by Steffan Rhodri, denouncing a society that values popular culture over philosophy and traditional art. Sleepless and without money, he decides to take a trip to the Prado and spend the night with Goya’s Black Paintings, in the company of his two sons (represented by two rather adorable piglets). The piglets are supposed to represent the protagonist’s view of his sons as uncouth and uncultured, and there’s a rather disturbing scene where he cooks and eats a bacon sandwich while staring defiantly at the little pigs. However, his view is at odds with the reality of the situation: his sons are clearly eloquent and intelligent and are able to converse with the German philosopher invited on the trip with ease.

The bare set is striking, and makes use of childlike props including colourful balloons. It’s an entertaining piece, but I found myself wishing for more discussion of the paintings themselves and why the protagonist values them so.

Twelve Angry Men

Twelve Angry Men has become a quiet success: playing at the Garrick since late last year, it has received strong reviews, continually sells well, and has kept extending. I bought my ticket just before the most recent extension was announced: it was due to end in March, but was then extended for another three months. It’s unsurprising really, as the production, completely unflashy in nature and with a very simple set, boasts a gripping script and some fine acting.

Reginald Rose’s play was initially broadcast on television in 1954, before being adapted for the stage and, a couple of years later, as a movie starring Henry Fonda. The current stage version stars Tom Conti, Jeff Fahey, William Gaminara and Robert Vaughn (Conti replaces Martin Shaw who was still on when I saw it).

The plot is simple: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case results in eleven jurors voting ‘Guilty’, but there is one dissenter – and during the course of the play this one man manages to convince every other juror to vote ‘Not Guilty’ too. The action never leaves the room in which the jurors deliberate, but the play is so compelling that this doesn’t matter. I was gripped throughout and I could have easily managed without an interval, so engrossed was I.

In the pivotal role of ‘Juror 8′, the one man who is unconvinced of the accused’s guilt from the start, Martin Shaw gave an excellent performance, and I hope that Tom Conti is living up to the standard he set. I also liked Robert Vaughn as the older juror who proved more receptive to Shaw’s ideas than might have been supposed, and Jeff Fahey, who lent complexity to and invited sympathy with his character, a juror whose difficult relationship with his son coloured his response to the case in hand.

The set design was simple but very clever, with an almost imperceptible revolve (I didn’t notice it until the people next to me started to discuss it at the interval) showing how viewpoints and perceptions were changing. An excellent production – definitely worth catching before it leaves the West End.

A November Day

You get theatres everywhere these days, but I’d never been to one in a library, until I visited the Canada Water Culture Space. A room inside the new Canada Water Library, the space is set out like a theatre, with raked seating, and I attended a puppet show there called A November Day.

Thingumajig Theatre have created this show to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. It follows a young woman trying to find out about her grandfather’s experiences of the war, and the subsequent flashbacks to his time in the trenches alongside his younger brother.

Kathy and Andrew Kim proved themselves to be versatile and talented performers, with Kathy carrying the show (and showcasing an impressive musical talent) and Andrew as an effective puppeteer. I thought the scenes in the trenches were the best, with effective and moving use of puppetry, and some moments of real feeling. A short, but worthwhile piece.

Blithe Spirit

I saw Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit in a production a couple of years ago, so why the rush to see this new production at the Gielgud Theatre? For me, it was the chance to see Charles Edwards, one of my favourite actors, as Charles Condomine, but for most people (and to a certain extent, me) it was the chance to see Dame Angela Lansbury return to the London stage for the first time in decades.

Despite her advanced years – she is eighty-eight, the same age as my granda was when he died – Lansbury is full of energy in her role as the batty Madame Arcati. Her ‘trance dance’ is almost worth the price of admission alone. She is very funny as this somewhat bizarre old lady, but she also has a welcome steely edge: her version of the character is firm in her convictions and sure of her abilities.

Edwards is superb, of course, as the man caught between the ghost of his first wife Elvira and the real person of his second, Ruth. Jemima Rooper as Elvira and Janie Dee as Ruth are both fantastic talents and round out the personalities of their respective characters; some of the best moments come when the two spar during the second half. Serena Evans and Simon Jones provide strong support, and Patsy Ferran makes a memorable West End debut as the unpredictable maid.

Even though this revival comes hot on the heels of the last one, it’s worth a look for the fantastic cast. I can’t imagine we’ll get a better one for a long, long time.

An Awfully Big Performance

An Awfully Big Performance was a little different from most theatre shows. It was designed to celebrate Chickenshed Theatre’s 40th anniversary and to showcase some of the best productions from their history.

Named after the theatre’s first venue – which was, indeed, a chicken shed – Chickenshed Theatre has come a long way in the past four decades. Thanks to the commitment of Jo Collins and Mary Ward, the theatre’s founders, and of course the participants, it puts on an extremely strong and varied selection of shows. The beauty of Chickenshed is that anyone can take part, regardless of their age, ability or whether they have a mental or physical disability.

Directed by Louise Perry, who along with all the crew deserve credit for putting such a huge production together, the show incorporates dance, puppetry, singing and acting. From the exciting ‘Cirque in the Freefall’ to the mini-play within Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the moving ‘A Mother of a Brown Boy’ to the impressive ‘A Drop in the Ocean’, the snapshots of the shows put on were hugely varied, powerful and entertaining. A really impressive and feelgood night out.