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    Michael Sheen and Sian Phillips are poetry: PATRICK MARMION’s first night review of Under Milk Wood

    Michael Sheen and Sian Phillips are pure poetry: PATRICK MARMION’s first night review of Under Milk Wood

    UNDER MILK WOOD

    National Theatre

    Rating:

    His beard bloomed and his hair sprang forth, like a riot of corkscrews, during lockdown. Now Michael Sheen sweeps on to the National Theatre’s Olivier stage in the manner of an Old Testament prophet descending from Mount Snowdon – or must we call it Yr Wyddfa?

    Sheen is best known as a great mimic who played Chris Tarrant in last year’s TV series about the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire coughing scandal, Quiz, and Tony Blair in the 2006 film The Queen opposite Helen Mirren – plus David Frost in Peter Morgan’s play and film Frost/Nixon and Brian Clough in the The Damned United movie.

    Here though he takes on the role of the narrator in Lyndsey Turner’s bittersweet revival of Dylan Thomas’s verse drama written for radio in 1954 – re-imagined here in a care home.

    Love of a son: Michael Sheen as loquacious narrator and Karl Johnson as his father

    Love of a son: Michael Sheen as loquacious narrator and Karl Johnson as his father

    Yes, thanks to additional ‘material’ from Sian Owen, Thomas’s fictional fishing village of Llareggub is now the dream of elderly patients in a residential facility carpeted in wall-to-wall pink.

    Owen was ill advised to stand comparison to Thomas with her new prologue and epilogue for the play. It was written by one of Wales’s most lyrical writers and disreputable barflies who almost lost the script in a Tenby pub.

    Thankfully, his musical tapestry triumphs with its evocation of the ‘Bible-black night’ and ‘fishing boat bobbing sea’. 

    Looking pallid and paunchy in his creased shirt and saggy trousers, Sheen takes the role of the story’s narrator, made famous by Richard Burton. 

    Sweet song: Sian Phillips as Polly

    Sweet song: Sian Phillips as Polly

    Only here, Sheen relates the tale not to the audience but to his father, whose memories have been robbed by Alzheimer’s.

    Inebriated by the whisky he keeps hidden in his jacket, Sheen stumbles eagerly through the verse as if making it up as he goes along – painting pictures of people (and their dreams) in the Carmarthenshire port that lies ‘fast, and slow, asleep’.

    The great, 88-year-old Sian Phillips is one of them: Polly Garter, quietly knitting and pining for a lost lover. Her sweetest moment is an unaccompanied song, I Loved A Man Whose Name Was Tom.

    Elsewhere Alan David plays old Mr Pugh, who serves his wife dutifully – while secretly reading Lives Of The Great Poisoners. 

    And Anthony O’Donnell’s blind Captain Cat in his armchair wistfully recalls ‘the sea’s end as it lulls in blue’. Throughout it all, Karl Johnson, as Sheen’s dad, looks on movingly, as if hoping it might all be real. 

    The care home setting does feel cheerless at first, but it’s a clever way of focusing the rambling yarn. And furniture on casters – including a shop counter, steaming stove and kitchen table, set with multiple cloths to denote different homes – add a sense of magic and playfulness.

    Nor could you wish for a more loquacious, richer narrator than hirsute, woody-voiced Sheen, who looks like he’s been training outside an off-licence. I just wish it had been bookended with silence rather than someone else’s words. 

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