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.
“Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre”
“To play with fear is to play with fire. No, worse, much worse, than playing with fire. Fire has limits.”
Tennessee Williams knew the importance of opening lines, and in “The Two Character Play” he captures the essence of what is to come. It is simultaneously reassuring and unsettling. It’s a theme that runs through much of his earlier writing, but in this later work it is much less opaque; we know the flame won’t be held back by the yellowing parchment through which we see it flicker.
In a way Williams was playing with fire. Rather than relying on his critical and popular acclaim he wanted to experiment and expand his writing style. It met with a mixed reception at its world premiere at the Hampstead Theatre, disconcerting critics and audiences. But over half a century later it definitely bites with a sharper resonance than ever before. The timing is perfect. A two-hander, we are introduced to Felice and then his sister Clare. They are both “artists of the theatre. Long prepared for working under unexpected conditions”. They have been abandoned by the rest of the company but are nevertheless determined that the show must go on despite the “eccentricities of the time”. Suffocated by their isolation and afraid to go out, the characters’ only choices are to face each other or to face their demons.
The structure is a play within a play, and Sam Yates’ production has perfectly captured this concept. As Felice and Clare prepare for their performance the houselights remain lit, the lighting rig is at floor level and the space is littered with the props and unassembled pieces of scenery. We don’t quite know when the pre-show ends and the show begins. Just as we are never sure of the shifts between the actors and their characters; whether we are in reality or in the play. Or in the play within the play. The blurred lines are always intentional, reflecting the brother and sister losing their own grip on reality.
Zubin Varla, as Felice, and Kate O’Flynn, as Clare, are outstanding and unforgettable. The chemistry burns and crackles with an enforced intimacy and horrific backstory that keeps them forever entwined. The fire of their performance is fanned by the many refreshing waves of comedy that they bring to the roles. It’s a skill that is rarely seen in theatre and Varla and O’Flynn wield it mercilessly through their wonderful shifts in mood, without diminishing the desperation that motivates their characters.
The second act dips into a darker domain. Lee Curran’s shadowy lighting and Dan Balfour’s surround sound design heighten the mood. A false ending trips us up and unfortunately dispels the magic momentarily as we slip into a flash of Gothic Horror. But the poignancy returns as the siblings (are they the actors or are they the characters they are portraying?) start to re-enact the tragedy that befell their parents.
They are unable to see it through. It is as unresolved as the play itself, and as the couple pull the plug on proceedings they are again alone on the bare stage. Their (imagined?) audience has also abandoned them, while they are imprisoned in the theatre. Too tired to be frightened now, they realise that fear is limited. “Clare, your mind’s going out” whispers Felice. Tennessee Williams was haunted and inspired by his sister Rose who was plagued by mental illness. “You must never make fun of insanity” Rose once reproved her brother “It’s worth than death”. In “The Two Character Play” Felice is left a note by the company that abandoned them: ‘Your sister and you are… insane!’. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. Varla and O’Flynn portray the characters with a perfect mix of exaggeration and sensitivity of which Williams would be proud. There is no answer really, just as the play has no real conclusion. We can part with reality at times, but we can never part with each other.
Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre.