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Under Milk Wood: Live On Stage at the Tobacco Factory Brewery, Bristol (published on www.Guide2Bristol.com)

Adapted from Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio drama, Splice Productions’ version of Under Milk Wood manages to keep all the wit and eloquence of Thomas’ original, whilst spicing it up with added humour and excitement.

The whole play is almost lyrically written, with Thomas’ words eloquently voiced by Bob Gwilym, known by many for his four years in BBC’s Casualty. It opens very gently, Gwilym’s sing-song accent rolling over the audience as he sets the scene of a village at night. He is then accompanied by Kerry Joy Stewart who joins him in a vivid interloping of the towns folks dreaming.

These two actors worked fabulously well together, their excellent chemistry clearly visible. Intended to be a play about a radio broadcast, the two acted their roles marvellously, both proving themselves as silver-tongued orators. Thomas uses some very tricky turn of phrases, which were handled effortlessly it seemed through various variations in pitch, tempo and character. The two front voices played myriad villagers, too many to count in one evening, but still managed to make each accent distinct so that the audience could tell which of the various characters was being soliloquised.

Gwilym and Stewart were unobtrusively supported by Natasha Pring as their sound engineer. Emerging onto stage before even the lights were on, clearly distraught, throwing down her things and taking a massive slug of gin. Though confusing to start with, soon you realise that director Kath Rogers and her team have adapted their production of Under Milk Wood to incorporate the behind the scenes drama of a 1960’s radio broadcast. You witness dissent within the ranks, as a slowly deteriorating Pring plays havoc with the sounds and script – to the obvious annoyance of the main protagonists. The first half ends in tears but the show does go on. Despite a power cut and other calamities there is eventually a final reconciliation.

Although they played each of their parts well I felt there was one flaw. Unfortunately the beautiful oration of Stewart and Gwilym was sometimes disrupted by the gradually worsening and mischievous antics of Pring’s character. Thomas has written a text that is as complex as it is rewarding, but to have a disruptive factor in the background sometimes took away from what was being said – as you’re eye is drawn to the considerable ways a drunken, sound engineer can cause havoc on a live production. And so vice versa, sometimes the sly, but gradually all the more blatant sips of gin weren’t noticed because of the siren like quality of the main voices.

With so much going on it was easy to imagine it being a real live radio broadcast, with all the troubles it entails. Crucially the superbly dramatised fall of Pring was left ambiguous, with only Polly Garter’s song for her dead lover giving the audience any suggestion to the emotional plight facing her character.

Although it was a thoroughly enjoyable affair, I felt the sing-song near the end was not in keeping with the production’s overall tone. All three of the actors performed admirably, so much that it was sometimes difficult to decide who to concentrate on at any given time. It was a bold move of Splice Productions and Kath Rogers to make any adjustments to a Dylan Thomas piece, and they have certainly gone to town on it.

All in all, Under Milk Wood: Live on Stage is a tremendous effort and an admirable cast.

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Rabbit Ears Review (originally published on Guide2Bristol.com)

The latest production by Theatre West showing at the Alma Theatre is a subtle and intriguing production, and not just for its suitably ambiguous title, Rabbit Ears.

Written by Bruce Fellows as part of the Theatre West season, many will not know what to expect from a local production performed by a cast of only three. After the first seemingly straightforward scene where Rosie’s boyfriend leaves her to go on active duty in Afghanistan the plot thickens and then twists in to quite the climax.

The venue is small and intimate, which benefits the small cast of Susie Riddell, Dan Winter and Ursula Entry. The audience is right up close and personal with the actors emotions, as is the intention, and throughout the performance you can tell that Fellows is trying to offer a glimpse of emotion that is usually too raw to be aired publicly.

The writing is subtle, and Fellows drops all sorts of hints that there may be a twist not to be expected. Rosie, performed with subtle dignity by Riddell, is not a character the audience is intended to empathise with. She talks to the clock on the wall, the only heirloom of her deceased father when alone, and hints at a dark and selfish side to her nature, whilst being openly generous and friendly with her companion in waiting Bren.

The two women are waiting at home on ‘passive service’ describes Fellows, while their respective partners are on duty. Thrust together, the show is stolen by Entry as Bren, whose nervous energy, open demeanour and subtle wit carry the audience through the long waits when all that can be heard is the clock ticking their frustration and heplessness in to near anxiety.

Winters is strong as the male figure, moving between his relationship with the two smoothly and not betraying much to the audience. His lengthy soliloquy about his time on duty is poignantly held together by the emotion he adds to the dialogue. Although we have all heard similar stories of wartime strife through cinema and theatre, being so close to the performance only added to tension, the beat of which was measured by Rosie’s clock.

The only music score is a famous Rosemary Clooney show tune, due to the fact that Rosie’s dad named her after the famous singer. The addition of Rosie singing it to Winter and forgetting the words simply adds to the realism of their situation, and ultimately wrenches on the heart strings.

Cleverly directed by Alison Comely, Artistic Director of Theatre West, it seems that in some cases she has added the light touch to the relationship between Rosie and Bren. The dialogue between the two over glossy magazines, and the sharing of a mug each of ‘rosie lee’ makes you feel like you could be sitting their with them. But Comely’s direction in the mundane only makes the dramatic scenes more compelling, with Rosie’s stubborn reticence to talk about pregnancy building the relationship of the two women to breaking point.

Not knowing what to expect from a small, independent production, I entered the Alma for the first time with an open mind, and can’t say I was disappointed. The first thing I did on leaving was pick up the listings for future showings at the Alma, knowing that a return visit will definitely be on the cards.