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.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie continues to go from strength to strength with the recent announcement the hit musical will be screened in cinemas this summer. We speak to ‘Pritti’ from the show, played by the WhatsOnStage Award winning …
Firstly, many congratulations on winning the WhatsOnStage award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. How did that feel?
Incredible! It was such a shock but it was so great to know people had taken Pritti pasha to their hearts!.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie seems to be the show that everybody else is talking about. However, for those who aren’t in the know, can you give a brief synopsis of the show?
The show is about a sixteen year old boy who wants to explore the world of drag and the trials and tribulations that follow – who supports him, who has reservations. The message is really about celebrating your own truth and being courageous in your convictions. It’s based on a true story.
Why do you think it has struck such a chord with the public and the critics?
Despite the show being somewhat niche – about an aspiring drag queen – its core is very universal. It is about existing outside of fear and pursuing your dream. It’s also about unconditional love and support – between that of Jamie and his mum and close friends – and how integral a strong network can be.
In the show you play Jamie’s best friend Pritti. Was there anything about her and the obstacles she faces that resonated with you?
Pritti really reminds me of myself in school. I was very academic and actually quite reserved. I struggled to trust myself and not worry about every little thing. She’s very wise beyond her years and really stands by her convictions and even now she encourages me to accept myself and not apologise for who I am.
You’ve been with the show ever since its first workshops back in 2015. You and the rest of the original cast and creatives must feel quite the tight-knit family now?
I have such love for the cast especially those I’ve been with since the workshop. I have a crazy amount of admiration and respect for John McCrea he’s so supremely talented and about the work; I’ve been very lucky to keep learning from him since the workshops.
Through the show’s journey to the West End, have there been any major changes or developments to your character and the story?
No major changes but as an actress you make more discoveries and revelations. In the West End transfer it’s been great to grow with the character and see more people embrace her.
Was there anything in particular that you did when preparing for this role?
I definitely researched particularly about the Islamic faith and the specificity of the community in Sheffield where we were placing our show. I have Islamic family members so it was great to pick their brains and handle the portrayal as sensitively and nuanced as possible.
Being a new musical and an original cast member too, how much input did you personally get to put into the show’s creation? Was it a collaborative environment?
It was a very imaginative creative space to work in and our director really encouraged us to put our artistic stamp on the characters. It’s been great watching everyone develop and evolve with their character. It’s been very collaborative and it still is; we’re always negotiating what works on stage and what maybe doesn’t.
How does it feel to see the show blossom into such a West End hit, with talks of possibly transferring to Broadway?
No insider Broadway gossip as of yet but I would love to see the show reach more audiences.
This is the first, big West End musical people will have seen you in. Did you have much of a background in musical theatre before?
I didn’t train in musical theatre, only acting so the singing and dancing is still a struggle for me – I used to dance as a kid but certainly not to a professional standard! I’ve never had a singing lesson either so it’s been a real learning curve.
What made you get into acting in the first place – is it something you have always wanted to do?
I just always loved telling stories and the thrill of the stage!
If you weren’t an actor what do you think you would do instead?
If I wasn’t acting I’d probably be a teacher I find it very rewarding or something involving animals!
What’s the best thing about being an actor and life in London?
The best thing about being an actor is knowing you’re telling a story that’s challenging people or enlightening them in some way. The best thing about life in London is how diverse it is! A real melting pot and there’s a possibility to be anything you want to be!