A Child’s Christmas a world and time away at Circa Theatre

Reminiscences of childhood by Dylan Thomas

Narrated and performed by Ray Henwood
Dramaturg: Ross Jolly

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Tuesday 1st December 2015

I thought I knew Dylan Thomas’s enchanting youthful evocation “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” pretty well, in the wake of numerous encounters with the work over the years. As each Christmas approached I would read the work to the class of children that were in my charge as a teacher,  a kind of ritual that extended over more years than I care to remember. And every now and then (invariably when my classes consisted of older children) I would bring out my precious copy of a Caedmon LP containing the voice of the great man himself reading the story (as well as five poems) in that unforgettable, peculiarly ritualistic sing-song voice of the kind attributed to bards of ancient times.

So, as I’d neither read nor listened to the story for some time, I anticipated with the greatest of pleasure the prospect of hearing one of Wellington’s most illustrious theatrical figures, Ray Henwood, present the work at Circa Theatre. While I assumed that it would be a one-man show, I was intrigued as to what Henwood would actually do, as I remembered the reading I did in my classes taking around twenty minutes in all – which seemed short measure for a complete Circa production.

Dylan Thomas’s own recording of this story was made in February 1952 in New York while the poet was on the second of his three “recital tours” of the USA. The LP format could accommodate far more recorded space that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” could fill up, so Thomas recorded five of his best-known poems to include on the record as well. I wondered whether Ray Henwood was going to do a similar thing, “filling out” the evening by reciting for us some of these iconic verses, such as “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”, and “Fern Hill”.

In the event what Henwood did was even more wonderful – having been brought up in Wales in the same places as Thomas himself, though a handful of years afterwards, he spent the entire first half of the show “setting the scene” for his audience from the persecutive of his own experiences as a boy in Swansea, bringing the poet’s world vividly to life. His account was a kind of amalgam of personal reminiscence interspersed with fragments of Thomas’s own earlier writings, some of which managed to find their way into the finished story this time round.

Thomas himself regarded Swansea ambivalently, writing to a publisher about his early poems growing out of “the smug darkness of a provincial town”, and describing his cultural environment as “depressing and disheartening” – interestingly his childhood reminiscences, which appeared in various incarnations, are almost entirely free from any such depression, boredom or frustration, filled as they are with wonderment and magical reinterpretation of a child’s world. Completely non-literal, and delightfully, and in places theatrically imbued with a sense of the fabulous amidst the ordinary, the writing envelops the reader with a vivid sense of time and place in the classic storytelling manner – an example in the finished version is the way in which Thomas’s sequence “whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or…..” so delightfully evokes and disarms at one and the same time, leaving the listener/reader subsequently ready for anything.

Previous versions of the poet’s childhood Christmas memories included a 1942 radio talk “Reminiscences of Childhood” which was further developed into another talk “Memories of Christmas” for the BBC’s “Children’s Hour” – legend has it that Thomas came not to be trusted broadcasting “live” by this time, and so his talk on this occasion was pre-recorded. The story then appeared in the photojournal “Picture Post” in 1947, and then in the American “Harper’s Bazaar” in the early 1950s, during one of Thomas’s American tours. During this first-half setting of the scene Ray Henwood quoted freely from these different versions, conveying not only a sense of the poet’s reworkings of his material, but of the kind of ambience that fostered both the style as much as the content of the things we were being presented with.

So we were primed up, good and proper, for the presentation of the finished story after the interval, the stage settings (the parlour at Thomas’s family home in Swansea, on Cwmdonkin Drive) similar to that throughout the first half, helping to give the whole a kind of organic flow-on effect. How beautifully and securely the story’s opening (“One Christmas was so much like another….”) placed the happenings in that country called the past, where “they do things differently”, fancy given licence to enlarge, intensify, heighten, in the pursuit of essential truths. To my fallible ears there seemed numerous additions to the story I remembered, references near the beginning to “tobogganing on the teatray” and to “boys who have three helpings”, each of which added a jewel to the sparkling whole.

Other references which I thought enlarged the range and scope of our pleasure at both detail and overall ambience included a mention of Christmas stockings just before the inventory of Christmas presents began (we enjoyed once again the familiar “mistake that nobody could explain, a little hatchet”, and the delightful reference to “the little crocheted nose-bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us”). Another, more poignant incident recounted that was new to me was the boy’s finding of “a dead bird – a Robin, perhaps – with all but one of its fires out….”

Henwood judiciously varied his delivery throughout, not only as regards pacing or alternating sequences and characterization of different voices, but in presenting the storyteller in different guises, sometimes as a kindly grandfather reading directly from a book’s pages, and sometimes as a character from the story come to life before our eyes, with a tangible presence to boot. Again this was keeping both the homespun and the magical on speaking terms, each to the other’s advantage, as well as to ours as the enthralled audience.

Aiding and abetting the unfoldings was a judicious use of sound effects, on the one hand firemen’s bells and associated noises, and then similarly sensitive lighting variations accompanying the carol-singing episode at the story’s other end – in general these technical things were sparingly used, allowing us to focus unerringly upon Henwood’s richly-wrought voice and the poet’s own word-painting to full effect, which were, after all the two things that mattered most about the venture.

What gave me the biggest surprise, I think was something which changed the whole concluding ambience of the story – the decision to finish the presentation with lines from one of Thomas’s most well-known poems, “Fern Hill”, the verses added without a break in the narrative flow. As concluded by Thomas, the “Child’s Christmas” account has the boy getting into bed, saying “some words to the close and holy darkness”, and then falling asleep, thereby preserving inviolate the memory of the day for all time. With those few lines from “Fern Hill” included, however, a shadow is cast retrospectively over the whole work, the events of the day made open-ended and subject to the ravages of time, the poem being a meditation on the transitory nature of life, and in particular, childhood.

Though time is initially presented by the poem as a benign force it holds sway in an all-pervading way, a feeling the “Child’s Christmas” story on its own manages to avoid by encapsulating time within the framework of a single day. It’s ironic that, on my copy of the aforementioned Caedmon LP containing the story read by the author, there’s space afterwards on the same side for one of the additional poems that were recorded in the same session – no prizes for guessing which poem it was!

So, a solid personal triumph for Ray Henwood and a success in terms of dramatic focus and literary quality for Circa. If you didn’t get the chance to enjoy the show and admire the actor’s skills, the theatre’s 2016 programme has scheduled for May a new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Henwood in the title role – one would imagine that, even if one saw nothing else at the theatre, such an event would come into the category of “unmissable”.

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