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.
“There is a welcomed playfulness to the production”
Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical chronicling the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, first debuted on the West End in 2008 before closing nine years later. Its revival at the newly renovated Trafalgar Theatre marks the show’s exciting return to the stage, made even more poignant after the original opening night was further postponed due to Covid-19 concerns.
The show opens with the chart-topping French cover of Oh What a Night (Ces Soirées-La) to demonstrate the band’s incredible international appeal. Certainly, this should come as no surprise, seeing as the band has sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide and survived the so-called British Invasion.
The story of the quartet’s rise and fall is told from the perspective of all four band members, the different seasons (Fall, Winter etc.) flashing on a screen above the stage to demonstrate this perspective shift. Though such a format presented a more ‘well-rounded’ story of the group’s success, this did have a significant effect on the musical’s pacing with some scenes forgotten as quickly as they started.
This also led to some rather jarring tonal changes. The strangest perhaps was found at the end of the production where in the space of five minutes the audience mourns the death of Frankie’s daughter before jumping forward a decade to the band’s joyous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There is, simply put, too much history and character development to pack in to the two-and-a-half-hour show.
An impressive number of songs feature in the production but again we are unable to rest on any one scene for too long. The opening scenes are particularly fast-paced and almost discombobulating as we are shown the formation of the group. There is no concrete sense of how much time has passed between any given scene, and the occasional time stamp on the large screen would have been a helpful signpost for the audience.
The cast is phenomenal. The New Jersey accents are well executed though very occasionally border on comical especially when we are reminded of the group’s mob connections. Ben Joyce (making his West End debut) does an excellent job of delivering Valli’s iconic falsetto. His performance of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You is particularly beautiful and Joyce was visibly moved at the audience’s ecstatic response to his rendition.
Adam Bailey and Karl James Wilson (playing singers Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively) are incredibly likeable and Benjamin Yates infuses the band’s ringleader Tommy De Vito with a braggadocious energy. The concluding speeches for each band member really allow the cast to come into their own and one cannot help feeling emotional as they update the audience on their lives in the present day.
There is a welcomed playfulness to the production. A particularly amusing moment occurs when Gaudio is implored to “play the f***ing song” in reference to Can’t Take My Eyes Off You which at half-way through the second half was still yet to be played. This outburst generated raucous laugh from the audience who surely felt as though the show was articulating how they were feeling about hearing the iconic tune.
The choreography (Sergio Trujillo) is fantastic. The quartet and the various backing dancers are all perfectly synced with Joyce demonstrating some particularly impressive moves. Though not necessarily true to life, this did add a great pizazz to the performances of the more upbeat songs.
The sets (Klara Zieglerova) were relatively simple with props used more often than backdrops to convey a certain location. Some particularly impressive staging came in the form of the band performing as if on television. Facing a prop camera to the side of the stage, the front view shot of the band performing played on the screen above the stage, interspersed with presumably real clips of crowds at Four Season performances.
You would be hard-pressed not to enjoy this revival of the Jersey Boys. Though the production would benefit for slower pacing at some points, there is no shortage of excellent music, engaging story, and supremely talented cast.