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Humanity, warts and all

A cast of outlandish characters reveal their very human traits in this Dylan Thomas classic. Heather Neill reports

Under Milk Wood By Dylan Thomas Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company. Touring Oxfordshire, the Midlands and Suffolk March 7 to April 15 Tel: 01865 249444

Dylan Thomas's poetic, cyclical radio play was first heard in 1954.

Director Brendan Murray will be taking his production around village halls with six actors, one of whom (by chance) is blind and another deaf, and a portable set, itself reminiscent of a village hall, furnished with six wooden chairs and two trestle tables.

The play is a favourite of Murray's: "If I had to sum it up in one word, I'd say 'humanity'. Thomas takes a look at us, warts and all in a loving, gentle way, but the warts are still there. Everyone either recognises or identifies with a lot of the characters, their thoughts, daydreams and even murderous intentions. The genius of Thomas is that the events he describes are tiny, but the reverberations universal. I'm sure if you played it in Swahili the audience would recognise these characters."

If Murray has a problem with the piece it is its circular structure. "It doesn't move dramatically from one place to another. It's more like a radio feature than a play."

His solution is to add a short framework so that some development can be introduced: "Six people turn up at the village hall, all for different reasons. One of them is intending to give a recital of Under Milk Wood."

The villagers are not getting on when they are plunged into darkness. The recital takes over, involving them all, and by the end relationships have changed.

Each actor plays about 10 characters, with the narrative - assigned to Voices 1 and 2 - divided between them. Quite a bit will be given in British Sign Language (this is as well as designated signed performances) and music will change the mood between sections. "dream time, dawn, breakfast, early morning, late morning, lunch, afternoon, dusk, night again. There are anomalies: it is clearly stated that it's spring, but sometimes it's summer. Mae Rose Cottage is lying in a field drawing round her nipples in late afternoon, but perhaps it's always summer for Mae."

Murray has no desire to caricature the people of Llaregyb ("bugger all"

spelt backwards, adjusted for propriety and based on Laugharne). "They are sometimes ridiculous, but you don't feel Thomas judges them, even Jack Black madly running through the woods or Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard. It's terribly funny that her husbands cower from her even after death, but there's sadness too in those icily laundered sheets. The Pughs love hating each other; he dreams of poisoning her and she knows exactly what he's thinking. It's what keeps them alive."

The shopkeepers, Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price, enjoy sending each other romantic notes, but nothing is really going to disturb their tidy celibacy.

"A lot of people are planning things," says Murray, "and sex runs through the piece like Blackpool through rock" - some of it highly suggestive. Does he have favourites?"I love Polly Garter with her sad song. She's like a social worker, kindly obliging bored husbands and having babies. And the Revd Eli Jenkins - I love his poems. He is completely innocent but then, in a way, everyone is."

* The Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea

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