The room is full of chairs. Not theatre seats, but chairs: wooden kitchen chairs, dining room chairs, as if a hastily called village assembly has been announced, and the residents have dragged their furniture out to accommodate an unexpected crowd, cushions on the floor ready for the overspill. It’s an aesthetic that goes well with this stripped back, sparse production, though my middle-aged bones are grateful that some more conventional, comfier seats are scattered throughout, fearful of managing 90 minutes on unforgiving wood.
There are two people. A woman, a man. Speaking to each other. Talking to us. Their voices are lulling, lovely, luring us in, encouraging us to peer through the darkness, to peak through windows, into houses, into hearts. They will walk us through this village, through this day, and strip its secrets bare.
It’s a strange thing, this production, equal parts alluring and odd. Following their recent popular take on The War of the Worlds, Northern Stage and director Elayce Ismail have tackled another made-for-radio drama in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, and it’s a bold if not always successful adaptation.
Taking on multiple roles, slipping between characters like sea mist through the streets, Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride are utterly beguiling, and the piece would fare better with more faith in their performances. They are the centre, they are everywhere – emerging behind us, creeping through curtains, striding across the stage. Their performances are warm, funny and deft. They handle the cadence of the language beautifully, and imbue it with plenty of humour, and the production is at its best when it allows us to just focus on them.
They are, however, too often undermined by unnecessary gimmicks. The simpler bits work well – an onstage Foley trolley is used to great comic effect. But the majority of Kris Deedigan’s video projections feel like a distraction: either pointlessly literal or heavy-handedly symbolic. There are admittedly some gorgeous moments, when the actors are projected onto the screens, giving us a bird’s eye view of the action. But too often they feel like shiny baubles dangled to amuse a crowd not trusted to be satisfied with such a story unadorned, and that feels like a disservice to both actors and audience.
Under Milk Wood is at Northern Stage until 17th November. More info here.