Colchester Mercury stages Dylan Thomas classic

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas at Colchester Mercury until May 1.

Director Gari Jones’ interpretation of this poetic masterpiece is a sheer delight and if he’s watching from some lofty seat in the gods, the author will be wearing a big smile because this show must get very close to what he had in mind.

It’s beautifully acted but the whole thing is given real substance by Sara Perks’ brilliant set. You feel the moment you see it that this is going to be something special. And so it proves. Her design has the bar of the Sailor’s Arms as its centrepiece and everything else is expansively spread around it.

A complete line of seats five rows back in the stalls has been sacrificed to carry the action right out into the audience and it works a treat as one by one Thomas’s wonderfully-shaped characters with their memorable names parade before us their dreams, their passions and their sorrows in the little Welsh seaside village of Llareggub.

Nine Mercury actors cover the whole cast list of about 40 characters, slipping into a new persona every few minutes, mostly offstage, occasionally in front of us, all done with apparent consummate ease but one suspects that they get some nifty help backstage.

The cleverness of Sara Perks’ set is displayed early on as the big pub window turns into a sort of aquarium through which, while blind Captain Cat sadly remembers old sailor friend lost at sea, we see and hear them struggling in the deep.

The top-hatted undertaker, Evans the Death, rises from under the stage like a wraith from the grave and the clean-and-tidy Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is still issuing orders to her two late husbands who, in death, are more scared of her than they were in life. ‘Before you let the sun in, be sure he wipes his shoes,’ she orders.

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Sinbad Sailors, the barman, dreams of the fragrant Gossamer Beynon, unaware that the schoolmistress has lusts of her own and there’s always a kettle on the boil at the home of Willy Nilly the postman and his wife so they can steam open the letters and relay the news to all and sundry.

‘Nothing grows in this garden but washing and babies,’ says Polly Garter who sings prettily about Little Willy Weep, the best of all her lovers; and there’s the schoolmaster Mr Pugh, with his Dr Crippen moustache, who thinks of nothing but poisoning his wife with something the toxicologists can’t trace.

They are all there, clearly spoken, not least the hysterical scene with the ‘schoolboys’ playing the kissing game with the ‘little girls’ in Goosegog Lane. The laughs just keep coming as Christine Absalom, Ignatius Anthony, Pete Ashmore, Miranda Bell, Roger Delves-Broughton, Clare Humphrey, Gina Isaac, David Tarkenter and Emily Woodward step from one role to another in an evening of sheer poetic pleasure.

David Henshall.

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