BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE 11/08/21 Graham Strachan
It's fitting that after a year of theatrical silence upon the boards of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and as Guy Masterson proudly celebrates his 27th year at the Fringe, he would bring Dylan Thomas's classic Under Milk Wood back to the stage, thundering softly through the darkness of the sleepy night above the town of Llareggub, and spinning webs of story about the weird and strange people who live there.
From Blind Captain Cat, to Rosie Probert and the Reverend Eli Jenkins, his comically overblown observations of the recognisable mundanity of village life has lost little of its majesty in the seventy years since it's original release as a radio-play.
Masterson, a veteran of over 2,000 performances of this piece, rocks, spins and lopes around the stage, flitting seamlessly between characters, at times orchestrating conversations between entirely differently voiced and mannered yokels, with a practiced ease and joy that comes with such familiarity. It's at times funny, at times sad, and in many ways the perfect return to the stage for audience and artist alike.
It's unfortunate, then, that a technical issue with the lighting led to more than a twenty-minute delay in the piece beginning, but one that was essential to the piece, as the lights spell out the story throughout, highlighting and contrasting scene and character. It's always preferable to have these things in order, but a delay such as this does hamper the work.
If there's a criticism of the work, beyond the specific technical issues previously mentioned, it's that the piece is still slightly butt-numbing even in this truncated form. Thomas's jocular satirising of the mundanity certainly entertains, but it does drag on just a little at points.
Even with these provisos, caveats and minor grumbles, there is little to knock the power and mastery at hand here. A welcome return for us all, and a chance to laugh at ourselves as much as others.
UK THEATRE NETWORK 10/08/2021 Clare Brotherwood
Guy Masterson is, for me, the star of this year’s Fringe – or indeed any Fringe.
The festival’s most awarded independent theatre producer and director during his 27 year association, he is also an award-winning actor, so this show was a must-see.
…And for another very special reason.
For Guy’s great uncle was actor Richard Burton, whose rendition of this ‘Play for Voices’ is still as famous as its author Dylan Thomas.
His uncle would have been proud of him! Masterson’s portrayal of the population of the fictional Welsh fishing town is a tour de force. The Londoner who started his acting career in Hollywood drew us in as soon as he began speaking in a melodious Welsh accent. But this was no recitation. While the stage play is usually performed by more than one actor, Masterson slips effortlessly from one to another of a myriad of characters (the full-length version has 69!), from a crying baby to a flirtatious girl to sensual women to Blind Captain Cat and everything in between, using his body as well as his expressive voice to bring each and every one of them to life in a way his uncle could never have done on a recording.
EDFRINGEREVIEW 10/08/21 Jungmin Seo
‘Stand on this hill. This is Llarregub Hill […] from this, you can see all of the town below you sleeping in the first of the dawn’, declares Fringe-veteran, Olivier-Award-winning Guy Masterson, his carefully commanding voice echoing into the hushed darkness of the Palais Du Variété. We forget that he is actually standing on top of a plain wooden chair – one of the only items on stage – for it is as though we are there in that small Welsh fishing village, inhabiting the magical night of Dylan Thomas’ enduring radio play, Under Milk Wood. Masterson’s (sixty-nine-characters-as-a-) one-man-show, Under Milk Wood, is officially 27 years old (it’s a little younger at the Fringe – closer to nine years), with over 2000 performances under its pyjama sleeve. The tagline from The Times reassures me that ‘If you’ve never seen Under Milk Wood before, this is the ultimate rendition’ – and it certainly is. Under Milk Wood – Semi-Skimmed – ‘semi’ because it has been adapted to Fringe running-times – is fresh, dense, and creamy, rippling with elegance and energy.
When I’m fortunate enough to stumble into an impromptu interview with him after the show, he explains that the sparseness of the set is due to his desire to ‘strip myself of everything that I ever did as a performer. I didn’t want to perform it, I wanted to channel it. I wanted it to come through me as if I was like a violin’. The performance flows seamlessly: there is even a grotesque musicality to the cow-kissing and the fish-gulping. It might seem a daunting production for those who are unfamiliar with Thomas’ work, but Masterson’s stage presence brings each of these characters to life, regardless of whether or not you have been able to keep count. It is, quite simply, an enchanting, inexplicable, stream-of-consciousness experience. No doubt everything has been thought through: ‘When I did it twenty years ago, I was very skinny, with a bald head, wearing a pair of pyjamas, looking like an inmate of a mental institution. That’s taken from the fact that the town was mad – either way, everyone went “that’s a really avant-garde image”’. He laughs before adding a caveat – ‘not that the audience needed to know the allusions to all that’ – in his distinctively generous manner.
The lighting, under the direction of Tony Boncza, coats the performance with another layer of magical musicality. It enhances the shadows on the back wall, which, according to Masterson, had been a chance-encounter: ‘It was a lovely discovery when that happened – I wanted a back-light that made it feel like night-time, with characters coming in and out of dreams, and I looked behind me, and they were alive’. He describes the entire piece as an ‘experiment in physical theatre’; it pulses with sound, shadow, and spectacle. His passion and dedication to Under Milk Wood is abundantly clear: ‘My wife and I say that it has made our lives’. And the best thing about it? He wants to share it. After the show, he stands by the door, allowing people to ask him about what brings him to the piece, what he loves about it, what he does to it every time he performs it. He wants to tell the story of the story, and it’s certainly worth listening to. Or, as Dylan Thomas says in the opening of Under Milk Wood: ‘Listen… Listen… Look’.
EDFRINGEREVIEW 10/08/21 Isabella Briers
Guy Masterson gives an outstanding one-man performance of Dylan Thomas’s iconic ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood. The poetic play famously celebrates the English language just for the very sake of it, playfully squeezing in words until the writing is ready to burst at the seams. Masterson delivers a lyrical, tactile, exhilarating performance which elevates the script into another dimension entirely.
Remembering a day in the Welsh town of Llareggub, Under Milk Wood conjures up sixty-nine distinctive characters, each played by Masterson in an extraordinary triumph. An all-knowing narrator addresses the audience, ‘only you can hear the houses sleeping’, before introducing the eccentric personalities. There’s the hilariously sinister Mr Pugh, who wants to kill off his dreadful wife with arsenic tea and venomous porridge. Then the tragic figure of Polly Garter, a washerwoman loved by many men, but whose heart belongs to a long-dead lover. Captain Cat, an aged sea captain, tells us his heart-wrenching dreams; schoolchildren play comical games; old gossips natter; bawdy men are crude. Life in all its infinite variety is present.
Masterson’s range extends beyond comprehension. With only a chair, a pair of sunglasses, and a pint of ‘beer’ which he downs halfway through (in character), he transports his audience directly to every precise moment and character psyche. The audience ends up so in-tune to his remarkable physicality, that he ultimately commands power by a single tilt of the chin, or slightest shift in his gaze. In a beautiful harmony of lighting, sound, and fascinating physicality, the characters appear as individual entities.
Credit must go to the tech team and to Matt Clifford’s remarkable soundscape which provides enduring images of humanity’s everyday charm. Technical voice effects make successful alterations where needed. Masterson’s voice echoes and booms as ghosts, or nasal static turns him into a 1940s radio presenter.
This is a dense, elaborate, and timeless piece of work – practically Shakespearean in magnitude. Some lines are outright tongue-twisters and it is no mean feat to enunciate every word from memory. Don’t let the ‘Semi-Skimmed’ part fool you. Even in this abridged version, every last second is put to use. Glimmers of raw passion convey Masterson’s personal connection to the words – he has performed them over two thousand times since 1994 and they were made famous by Masterson’s great uncle, Richard Burton (yes, that one).
The show I saw, already running half an hour behind due to technical difficulties, had a key light blow out halfway through the performance. But nothing could faze Masterson, and he returned in exquisitely composed character once we could see him again. I cannot even use a full hand to count the most minute stumbles he made over fragments of the script, and I’m the worst kind of audience for seeking out slip-ups. Each one was almost immediately erased and spoken over, as if his mind was auto-correcting.
If you don’t make it there this Fringe, there’ll hopefully be every chance you can make it to this show on its next run. Watching the performance is watching genius at work. It would be so worth the wait.