THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANYMORE at the Charing Cross Theatre
“There are moments of quality craftsmanship, but you could find them much more easily in one of Williams’ better-known works.”
Putting on a lesser known, or “rarely performed” Tennessee Williams play does not instil much confidence as an idea, I must say. It’s possible, of course that director Robert Chevara has found a discarded diamond, but that seems unlikely given that a quick internet search reveals two failed productions and a poorly received movie adaptation of The Milk Train in Williams’ lifetime. So, what does Chevara have in mind to make of this production what Williams couldn’t?
It’s got many of the hallmarks of a Williams play of course: a Southern belle past her prime, an anecdote-heavy script full of would-be parables, plenty of denial and repression, and lots of alcohol: Flora Goforth (Linda Marlowe), a once famous beauty, has isolated herself on her vast estate in Spoleto, Italy with only her put-upon secretary, Blackie (Lucie Shorthouse) and a security staff to keep her company. She’s dying, though it appears she either truly doesn’t know or refuses to accept. One day a strange young(ish) man, Chris Flanders (Sanee Raval) comes to visit. Rumour has it, he only calls on elderly women who are about to die, but his good looks and helplessness sway Flora to keep him on site.
The programme suggests that The Milk Train is an homage to Williams’ long-time lover, Frank Merlo, who died a year before the play was written. So, perhaps it was Williams’ fear of revealing his romantic inclinations on stage so overtly that had him make such strange narrative choices. Chris is a bizarre character profile, and his presence is never satisfactorily explained: Is he there to take advantage of a rumoured-to-be dying woman, or is he there in his capacity as Angel of Death, in which case, huh?
Raval has fully leant into the strangeness of his character, acting as though he were experiencing regular acid flashbacks. Marlowe is sufficient as Flora, but she loses some of the better lines in her concentration to get the accent right- something she doesn’t always achieve.
Shorthouse is, again, sufficient, although she appears rather brusque with her employer, veering on rude from the very beginning, whereas one would expect a bit of a switch later when Blackie finally decides to quit.
It’s a little strange to pitch the show on both Linda Marlowe, who plays the main role, and Sara Kestelman who only has a bit-part. But it makes perfect sense in this production, because Kestelman is absolutely fabulous as the bitchy, elderly party girl, and Flora’s frenemy. Despite having only a handful of lines, she manages to flesh out the character so that we feel we know her entirely.
Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s design is a fairly standard Tennessee Williams set-up: a big bed, a fully stocked bar, and lots of walking space for the characters to ruminate aloud at length.
There’s been an attempt to modernise: iPhones instead of landlines, and an iPad instead of paper and pen. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s really neither here nor there; a minor distraction in an already peculiar story.
Williams clearly had something particular to say, but he’s gone to so much effort to disguise the biographical elements of this story, that it no longer really makes sense. Consequently, Chevara was never really going to be able to make more of this story than he has- the script just isn’t strong enough. And everything else inevitably follows suit. There are moments of quality craftsmanship, but you could find them much more easily in one of Williams’ better-known works.
Reviewed on 3rd October 2022
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Nick Haeffner
Previously reviewed at this venue: