Dylan Thomas and memories of Christmas past: Ballet Cymru in A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs

Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London
November 3, 2018

David Mead

Hidden away in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells last weekend was a rare treat, especially for those who love dance and Dylan Thomas. It came courtesy of Ballet Cymru and a fresh, new two-part programme: Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs, that first features dances to a series of readings of the poet’s work in all its varying moods, followed by a delightful interpretation of his classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales. As an extra plus, the text was narrated live by singer/songwriter, author and broadcaster Cerys Matthews; and her and Mason Neely’s original music played part-live by Jazzwise’s Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year, Arun Ghosh.

Beth Meadway in the first half of Dylan Thomas - A Child's Christmas, Poems and Tiger EggsPhoto Sian Trenberth
Beth Meadway in the first half of Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs
Photo Siân Trenberth

Those who enjoy Thomas will find many of their favourite poems and prose in the first half, including some of his most famous including ‘Should Lantern’s Shine’. A delicious opening solo by Beth Meadway is full of changes of direction, long lines and stretching sinews, yet all done with a soft continuity. It matches perfectly the melodic rise and fall of the words and their narration, while hinting at the mood and intent behind the brief poem that’s about the young narrator’s attempts to find a valid guide in life. There’s a more upbeat and playful duet as Meadway is joined by Daniel Morrison and then others. More obvious word associations come later, the whole cast looking skywards to the words “The ball I threw while playing in the park, has not yet reached the ground.”

As the words come and go, it’s impossible not to disassociate the text from the dance. But who would want to cast aside such gorgeous use of language? Darius James and Amy Doughty’s choreography illustrates the poems, switching between reflecting their sound and extracting literal sense, not always easy as Thomas’ sometimes near-surreal use of words can defy any choreography to spring literally from meaning.

Picking out favourite dances is difficult but, apart from the super opening, I particularly enjoyed the ensemble dance to ‘Laugherne’, an expression of Thomas’ love for the town. It’s impossible not to smile when you hear, “Now, some people live in Laugharne because they were born in Laugharne and saw no good reason to move; others migrated here, for a number of curious reasons, from places as distant and improbable as Tonypandy, or even England.”

The text of ‘To Being But Men’ is appropriately matched with a pleasing male quartet. There are plenty of leaps and turns, but all done with a near adagio-quality and delicacy, as the choreography plays with the idea of “Letting our syllables be soft, for fear of waking the rooks.” I also very much liked ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ with its super solo of rolls and turns by Miguel Fernandes, and ‘Do not go gently into that good night’, a duet for Krystal Lowe and Meadway, with music unusually from a harmonium.

I wasn’t so keen on ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, which sees four couples in awkward-looking pushing and pulling but it’s a gorgeous half hour or so that simply flies past with the company looking as good as I can ever remember.

Xolisweh Richards and Miguel Fernandes in A Child's Christmas in WalesPhoto Sian Trenberth
Xolisweh Richards and Miguel Fernandes in
A Child’s Christmas
Photo Siân Trenberth

Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales has become a firm favourite with all ages. It dates from 1952, having its roots in an earlier 1945 piece for BBC Radio Children’s Hour, but it remains timeless. The text features various anecdotal memories of Christmas from the viewpoint of a young boy. Just as children are want to do, they flip from one to the next in an instant.

The ballet opens with a delightful film of children at a primary school explaining what Christmas is for them. It provides a neat link between present and past as dancers become the youngsters on film, before time rolls back as James and Doughty latch onto Thomas’ comedic text.

Past memories often get enlarged, for good or bad, about people, snow and more. James and Doughty fill the dance with delightfully exaggerated characters as they illustrate the words. It’s all to do with the way it’s done but, for once, grown-ups playing children works a treat.

With Xolisweh Richards and Fernandes as the two central children (the former effectively Dylan Thomas, the narrator), we witness the excitement of the fire at Mrs Prothero’s (better than snowballing her cats, we are told), and the yellow-helmeted firemen who turn up to put it out. Then there’s the postman who struggled through the snow and “crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully.” There are memories of presents: useful and useless. And, of course, “There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles.” Not to mention hippos and perhaps a ghost.

It’s beautifully wistful and nostalgic. It certainly reminded me of childhood Christmases, even if they were from a couple of generations later, and even if it is a look back through a rose-tinted lens. “It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.” But then snow always was more exciting in childhood.

Matthews and Neely’s easy-going score matches it all beautifully, the music referencing familiar Christmas sounds, and hinting at traditional-sounding melodies. My only gripe is with the dancers silently mouthing the words when someone speaks in the text. It’s unnecessary and looks as false as it is.

For seasonal ballet with a difference, A Child’s Christmas in Wales is hard to beat. It is told from a child’s perspective but such is the way everything is done, you find yourself being transported back to your own childhood with no effort at all. You feel the wonder and the expectation as it leaves a warm festive glow. Lovely.

Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs by Ballet Cymru continues on tour to December 11. Visit welshballet.co.uk for dates, venues and links to book tickets.