“To begin at the beginning…”
Those five simple words are, of course, the opening to Dylan Thomas’ iconic play Under Milk Wood, but while they also launch this new production in Laugharne, it is a very different experience.
Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited is the latest offering from National Theatre Wales and pays homage to the writer during his centenary year.
Billed as “a re-imagining of Under Milk Wood” it takes the essence of the classic and shakes it up for a new generation but, at the same time, puts Laugharne – the place which inspired Thomas – at its heart.
Taking audiences to the town’s “underbelly”, they get to explore its nooks and crannies and make some surprising discoveries along the way.
The performance opens with tour guide Roy Ebsworth-Williams (Charles Dale) gathering his latest group of tourists (the audience) for a guided trail through Laugharne.
Dressed in a pale blue shirt, striped tie and carrying a clipboard, Roy may at first appear enthusiastic about the modern day Laugharne and Thomas’ legacy but he’s soon distracted by his bleeping phone and receives an offer he can’t refuse, leaving his group to explore by themselves.
As soon as he’s gone, Voyce (Russell Gomer), a pilferer, poacher, pirate and taxidermist appears. Wild eyed and with an unruly beard, the Dylan Thomas obsessive is upset the so-called “experts” on the writer haven’t consulted him while organising any centenary celebrations.
Wearing a huge bunch of keys to all of its important locations around his neck, he hands out Roy’s maps, which he’s now sabotaged, urging the tourists to explore the real Laugharne before telling them to meet him outside the town hall when the bell sounds at 1.10pm.
And so the adventure begins. The audience has almost two hours to visit the places circled on the map and while there are more than a dozen venues dotted throughout the area, people can visit as many or as few as they like and in any order so they can go at their own pace.
Created by artist Marc Rees and writer Jon Tregenna, Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited mixes live performances with soundscapes, installations and footage from BBC Wales’ new all-star production of Under Milk Wood.
Highlights include a visit to The Pelican, the house where Thomas’ parents once lived. In the basement a modern day Captain Cat is reminiscing over a drink or two while the sound of the sea can be heard in the distance.
In the front room a fire roars in the grate and Dylan’s open coffin, featuring his skeleton cleverly created from scrunched up pieces of paper containing the text of Under Milk Wood, is poking out of the window.
On the TV, Michael Sheen appears as First Voice repeating the words, “time flies” over and over again. It’s a powerful and poignant reminder of Thomas’ early demise.
Other discoveries include Corrugation Street, a row of sheds in the shadow of Laugharne Castle in homage to Coronation Street, which is said to have been inspired by Under Milk Wood. They contain real owls to reference Thomas’ description of the castle’s walls as “brown as owls”.
And in Thomas’ writing shed is a screen flashing the names of the people who he’s influenced, including The Beatles.
There’s also a recreation of Thomas’ funeral procession through the streets of Laugharne, which was an emotional touch.
The production blends seamlessly into everyday life so at times you’re left wondering what’s real and what’s not.
However, there are too many installations and not enough performances.
With so many colourful characters in both Under Milk Wood and Laugharne itself it would have been lovely to see more of them cropping up along the way.
And if you’re not familiar with Under Milk Wood, many of the references will be lost on you.
But there’s a lovely finale featuring the talented Laugharne Players, proving that the town and its people are the real stars of the the show.
Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited runs until May 5. It will be featured in Under Milk Wood on BBC One Wales on Bank Holiday Monday at 7pm