It’s coming home…

It's coming home...

…theatre’s coming home.

It’s a long time since I put finger to keyboard about the fantastic theatre we have on offer. The first lockdown largely put a stop to that, and although I’ve probably seen more theatre than I do usually, reviewing a zoom production didn’t seem to have the same pull for me. I may do a note later about some of the excellent productions sent to our living room, and I do hope that some companies continue to use methods other than live performances to put on their shows. Not having to travel hundreds of miles means so much more is accessible to many more people, whether it’s performance art, lectures, or study groups.

Anyhow, that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is when you book to see Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre miles in advance, you don’t take into account the fact that England might be in the half of the draw that ends up with them playing in a semi-final on the same night.

OH NO!!! Oh yes. The up side is that it’s a relatively short performance (one hour 45 minutes), starts at 7.30pm and is played without an interval. Social distancing in the theatre also means it should be relatively easy to get out, and on to the 9.35 back to Southampton while the game is still on. Hopefully that means we should avoid seeing any England supporters cheering or crying and there is an outside chance we can make it home to watch the recorded game without knowing the result.

Our dreams are shattered. The play starts late, and over-runs slightly. That Welsh bugger Sheen did it deliberately, obviously. We miss the 9.35, and have to wait an hour. Amazingly the big screens at Waterloo aren’t showing wall to wall news coverage of the game. We keep our heads down.

Before the 90 minutes is up in the game, a small group of young England supporters come and sit next to us. Once of them is very drunk. None of them are talking about the game. Their England flag is discarded on the floor – we fear the worst. The young drunk is virtually carried off to his train by his mates. It’s odd that the station isn’t filled with supporters travelling home. EXTRA-TIME!!! It must be extra time. OMG!!! Our train is on time but we want to get on away from any supporters as soon as it’s in so we go to stand by the departures board. Please let it be on time.

But then there is a slight shift in the mood on the concourse. A couple of rail staff clap and give others the thumbs-up. I convince myself that their shift is coming to an end, or they’ve just been awarded some bonus overtime. It can only be a half way through extra time, so they can’t be cheering about the score. Our train is in. We jump on into a quiet carriage. If any football supporters jump on hopefully they will go and be noisy somewhere else. There is still a chance we can pull this off and get home without hearing the score.

One bloke gets into the carriage, looking intently at his phone. We hold our breath. We will him onwards.

He goes to the middle of the carriage. The football gods are still with us. Hardly anyone gets on this late train at the stations we will be stopping at. I’m already calculating which route to take from Southampton Central to home to avoid any pubs which might still be full of fans.

It’s nearly time to pull out. But then doors hiss open again. Oh bugger. But it’s OK. Six Asian men with overnight bags. Work colleagues? Boys’ night out? They’re just chatting about stuff. Not football. Then as they get to the middle of the carriage they take their seats. They put their cases in the racks. One of them looks down at the guy with his phone, nods, and to be polite says “Hi, how are you doing?’. Instead of the expected “OK thanks”, “2-1” is the reply and polite “well-dones” from the overnighters.

BUGGER. Anyhow, at least when we do get home we watch the match in calm serenity.

But as I said earlier, this is not what I meant to say.

Under Milk Wood was great. You all know the story. Set in a fictional village of Llareggub (bugger all, reversed) we hear the dreams of its residents – everyday stories of village folk if you wish. A narrator guides you from house to shop, from school to chapel introducing and commenting on the characters as they recount their lost dreams and ambitions in their dreams of today.

Sheen gives a terrific performance in this lightly adapted version which moves the narrative to care home where the residents are the characters of the village. This setting allows the narrative to be a conversation between father, Rverand Jenkins played immaculately by Karl Johnson, and son, Owain Jenkins who Sheen uses to weave Dylan’s poetry throughout the play. The conversation about memories as a furious son tries to force then encourage his father to remember the present is the narrative. The fury subsides into a beautiful, sad, funny remembering of a life gone by that still has impact on today.

Set in the round in a socially distanced theatre at times you have to concentrate to catch every word, but should you miss one the lyrical Welsh voices will carry you through. The play is simply set in a care home by a few sticks of furniture but they are soon wheeled off to allow the main narrative and dreams to unfold on a largely empty village stage. The odd table or other piece of furniture is wheeled on to represent one household or another. One brilliant breakfast table where each tablecloth is in turn pulled away from under the plates and cups to reveal another represents half a dozen families in quick succession. A lazy wheeled bathtub type affair is scooted round the stage as Nogood Boyo’s fishing boat.

But however well-staged this play is it needs the narrator to make it work. And my goodness does Sheen do that. I have no idea how many lines he has, but Hamlet can’t have many more and Sheen delivers them with a rage and with a gentleness in this mesmerising performance.

I may do a list of all the things we’ve seen during lockdowns one to however many it is. It will be a reminder of how the arts can reach the masses.

But in the meantime, it’s coming home. Live theatre is coming home.

★★★★★
The National Theatre, until 24 July 2021 (but at time of writing is sold out for all performances).

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