The Milk Train … is one of the most intriguing plays by Tennessee Williams. A failure on first production, it is rarely revived and is perhaps best (and notoriously) known for the film version directed by Joseph Losey as Boom!, a vanity project for the Burtons.
Here, Flora Goforth (go where?), a decaying flower, widowed four times and living a solitary life up a mountainside, is writing her memoirs, piecemeal, dictating to her secretary Blackie.
Linda Marlowe plays Flora (“my friends call me Cissy”). She is a little old, perhaps, for the role, but applies a mix of frailty and steel to the role of the woman who has risen from the chorus line to rich marriages and bitter loneliness.
The prominent billing of Sara Kestelman belies the relatively small part of Connie, “the witch of Capri”. It’s a part that allows both older women (“the bitch and the witch”) to share a lively, sharp scene of barbs and veiled insults.
As Christopher Flanders, the wandering poet who captures the hearts of fading women approaching their eternal journey, a wide-eyed Sanee Raval lacks the animal magnetism the character should have in spades.
There are compensations in Robert Chevara’s production – Lucie Shorthouse is excellent as the poor widow who now has to take dictation from the demented for her keep, and her subtle flirtation with the poet highlights the sexuality within the business-like frame.
Matteo Johnson’s fussy and bustling Giulio adds a touch of humour, in contrast to the angry bear of Joe Ferrera’s Rudy, who not only lets the guard dogs out at will but proves the least of security men in a crisis. His vicious brand of masculinity seems to have made Flora hard, but brittle.
Williams is known for his damaged female characters: Blanche du Bois, Amanda Wingfield, Mrs Stone, Alexandra del Lago, Maggie the Cat. It is an uneasy sisterhood into which Flora Goforth slots easily.
The Milk Train … is about magic, memory, and motivation. In her villa “wired for sound” Flora has ceased to hear the outside world of wind and water, retreating instead into her own memories and bodily needs.
She starves her poet and dresses him in Samurai robes, afraid and yet drawn to him. When informed he is known as the “angel of death” the symbolism grows thick, although one conversation between them feels inconsequential and empty.
Kestelman shines in her brief appearances – this role is not gender-specific and could (and has been) just as easily be played by a man. Here, the Witch is a talisman for the future and a last taste of freedom for her ailing frenemy.
This is an interesting revival of a very personal play for Williams – written just before the death of his lover and muse. It may not quite catch fire, and some staging choices are curious at best, but it is worth taking a trip on this train while it is here.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October. You can purchase tickets here.
Image credit: Nick Haeffner