There has been a bit of a Tennessee Williams revival in London in the last few years. Gillian Anderson shone as Blanche DuBois in 2014’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The Young Vic continued to revive Williams in 2017 with Sienna Miller and an incredible Jack O’Connell in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Clive Owen and Lia Williams starred in The Night of the Iguana in 2019 and most recently The Glass Menagerie saw Amy Adams making her West End debut. So far, so familiar…
It is bold move that Charing Cross Theatre has stepped away from the familiar titles of Williams’ catalogue. The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is a rarely-presented work and its troubled history may give a clue why. It premiered on Broadway in 1963 and survived for 69 performances – mostly because a newspaper strike prevented the overwhelmingly poor reviews reaching potential audiences. After a rewrite, a second production debuted on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead playing Flora Goforth (for whom the part was originally written and some say was based on). It closed after 5 performances. The play’s fortunes fell further with the notorious 1968 camp and baffling film adaptation Boom! starring a too young Elizabeth Taylor and a too old Richard Burton.
The play sees super-rich, four-times widowed Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth dictating her memoirs in her exclusive villa perched on the top of a mountain on the Amalfi Coast – “the memories of her career as a great international beauty” as her much put-upon assistant Frances Black puts it. The unexpected and uninvited arrival of Christopher Flanders, a mysterious poet-artist, interrupts Mrs Goforth’s cycle of medical treatments and relentless bullying of her staff. In denial that she is dying, she warms to the idea of the intruder providing the male company she declared she needs “to be me”. She is thrown, however, when her frenemy, the so-called ‘Witch of Capri’ informs her that Chris has reputation of visiting old ladies “just a step or two ahead of the undertaker”. What is the true intent of her mysterious guest?
Could this production be the one to break the curse of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore? In a word, no.
For a play that has such an ill-famed success rate, it seems remarkable the director Robert Chevara should present this production without a fresh take or any approach to tackle the play’s many issues. Setting Milk Train is present day allows for mobile phones but references to Gore Vidal and Truman Capote in the text seem to contradict the contemporary setting. This play was part of Williams’ writing transitioning from his brand of naturalism into non-naturalism but the direction largely ignores this. There is a surrealism in this playwright’s meditation on mortality, which mirrors Goforth’s morphine-and-brandy fuelled perspectives, but this is either bypassed or left unexplained by this production, leaving no context to dialogue that frequently ends in rhetorical cul-de-sacs. Failing to reflect the key line “Everything is urgentissimo this summer”, Chevara has allowed his production unfold at a meandering, monotonous pace, robbing Goforth’s impending death of any jeopardy or growing tension.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore relies on whoever plays Flora Goforth to do almost all of the heavy lifting. She is, according to her assistant, “a dying monster”. The terrace of her villa has become her dominion – the only control she can exert in contrast to her failing health.
Mrs Goforth should be like a female King Lear, battling against the dying of the light. Linda Marlowe spends most of the time battling against the script. And who can blame her. Williams’ lands the character with an Everest of speeches, complete with blizzardous thought-transitions. The tyrannical aspect of the role is lost as Marlowe focusses on keeping her verbal footing.
That’s not to say that she doesn’t hit some memorable moments. At the end of Act One, Marlowe evokes some poignancy recalling the death of Harlam, Goforth’s first husband. It is a credit to Marlowe’s skill as an actor that she manages to mine something moving in her character’s end.
The role of Christopher – Tennessee Williams’ none-too-subtlely named symbolism of a Christ-figure in case you missed the “my Saint, my angel” dialogue – is meant to be an enigmatic stranger. One who suffers – okay Tennessee, we get it – to reach Mrs Goforth’s villa. His character should be ambivalent. Is he simply misunderstood in his supposed desire to help the elderly die comfortably or is he a vulture preying on the dying? Sanee Ravel replaces the enigmatic nature of his character with an impenetrable blankness. Without the audience getting a steer on what may lie beneath, his Chris lacks the potential agency to upturn the existing order in the Goforth household.
A welcome break in the miasma of Williams’ meditations comes with the arrival of Sara Kestelman‘s Witch of Capri. Her mischievous, gossipy friend-rival gives Marlowe’s Goforth a worthy foil. In scenes that feel entirely belonging to a different play, the humour and energy levels soar briefly. Throwing deliciously poisonous barbs at each other, Kestelman scathing dismissal of Goforth’s Ferrero Rocher pyramid of gulls’ eggs while freely helping herself to the terrace’s minbar is a scene-stealing tour-de-force.
Matteo Johnson also deserves praise for wringing out a slippery, conniving charm out of the minor role, Giulio.
Even assuming a perilously small budget, there is nothing in Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set design that suggests either luxury or Italy. It’s at best an IKEA-furnished student flat with a decent drinks stash. Given that Flora Goforth is meant to be super-rich and this is her exclusive, Lloyd’s-assured property, Chris Flanders might well assume he’s climbed the wrong mountain. It seems a basic design error when the budget can’t stretch to luxury, you make everything neutral and focus on a couple of highlighted objects to wow. Any hopes of wealthy extravagance hit the floor with the thud of Christopher Flanders’ rubber Samurai sword.
Robert Chevara’s dawdling production remains inattentive to the play’s long-established inherent problems. Emotional depths remain untapped. Despite Marlowe’s best efforts, the balance between Flora Goforth living or dying, after nearly two and half hours, fails to carry significant impact. One for particularly devoted Tennessee Williams’ completists only.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. We can’t blame it – a ★★ (2 stars) miss.