By Clancy Gebler Davies
The 60th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s death on November 9, 1953 was marked by a production of Under Milkwood held at the Fitzrovian pub where he fell in love at first sight with his wife Caitlin Macnamara.
The Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place was one of a number of Fitzrovia haunts, including the Fitzroy Tavern, where Thomas drank and it is thought to be in the Wheatsheaf in 1936 that the painter Augustus John introduced Dylan to Caitlin, the hard-drinking chorus girl and the daughter of a poet who he was to marry a year later.
The production was attended by singer-songwriter, author and broadcaster Cerys Matthews and chairman of the Dylan Thomas Society of Great Britain Jeff Towns, who brought a sizeable contingent with him from Swansea.
Brainchild of Maverick Theatre’s artistic director Nick Hennegan, the production’s cast of six — Emily Wilden, Jamie Spindlove, Sarah Dorsett, Roger Sansom, Ceri-Rose Lacombe and Adam Haigh — were directed by Katie Merritt in a spirited and moving production.
The cast read from scripts and enhanced the atmosphere by voicing all the sound effects. The play had several members of the audience moved to tears — especially by the stand-out performance of Emily Wilden as Pretty Polly.
Maverick Theatre’s Nick Hennegan had the idea to put on the show whilst running his London Literary Pub Crawl which started earlier this year.
“One of the scenes in the pub crawl is where Dylan meets his wife at the Wheatsheaf” says Hennegan, “and I knew this big anniversary was coming up. I had this strange kind of feeling that we should make this nod to to him by doing Under Milkwood upstairs here, so I went to see if I could get the rights to put it on.”
He recruited director Katie Merritt — who recently graduated from the MFA Theatre Directing course at East 15 Acting School — and there was a big response when they put out a call for actors to take part.
“I liked the idea of doing it pretty raw — in the pub without any lights or recorded sound effects, just the human voice,” says Hennegan. “It was a very stripped back minimalist production.”
He had concerns that they wouldn’t pull it off.
“We had very little money and I wasn’t sure we’d get an audience,” says Hennegan.”But we hit social media pretty hard and the Dylan Thomas Society got to hear about it. They came to the Wheatsheaf directly after they laid a wreath to Dylan Thomas at Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
“We sold out most of the performances.”
About 25 people came from Swansea with the Dylan Thomas Society of Great Britain.
“Dylan loved Fitzrovia,” says chairman Jeff Towns.
“Caitlin was with Augustus John when she met Dylan and I don’t think John was best pleased at first, but later he became their patron and gave them money.”
BBC Radio 6 DJ Cerys Matthews brought her family along.
“We had to squeeze them all in behind the bar,” says Hennegan. “Cerys sent a text afterwards saying we’d done Dylan proud so it did what we intended it to do.”