A previously hidden gem from one of America’s greatest playwrights crackles with tension and atmosphere.
Amongst the pantheon of great American playwrights Tennessee Williams mingles with the very best. So it’s difficult to imagine the creator of a ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ having anything resembling a flop. But that’s exactly what happened with ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’. Premiering in 1963 it ran for a paltry 69 performances on Broadway. Since then the play has rarely been performed. It was re-written for the big screen as Boom! in 1968. But the intended star vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was also a failure. This new outing at the Charing Cross Theatre is undoubtedly a treat; with trains rumbling overhead the venue sets an atmosphere befitting any play by Williams.
Flora Goforth (Linda Marlowe) is a rich widow and former society beauty writing her memoirs. She is terminally ill and ensconced in a mountaintop villa on the Amalfi Coast. Blackie (Lucie Shorthouse) is her stressed secretary trying to make sense of her random musing. The moody and mysterious Chris Flanders (Sanee Raval) soon enters the fray; a social climber who is anxious to be seen with the right people at the right parties. Flanders ingratiates himself with Flora who is very taken with him. The party is complete when the Witch of Capri (Sara Kestelman) rocks up. But for Flora it’s a time of reflection and contemplation of her own mortality.
Whilst the pivotal relationship is between Flora and Chris it’s her verbal sparring with the Witch that stands out most clearly. There are memorable one liners that keep the plot ticking along (‘my eyebrows were in focus but my eyes failed me!’) and Williams’ acerbic observations still hit the spot. There is something very familiar about Flora; she would have much in common with Blanche DuBois from a ‘Streetcar Named Desire’. Both have a sense of their fading beauty and how others might see them. In many respects this play shows a writer who is long past his best and re-cycling old characters; Williams’ finest moments had clearly been and gone. But there are enough chinks of light to sustain a piece that has something to say.
Although set in the present day it bears all the motifs of something written much earlier. It remains a work of its time but is no worse off being a period piece. All these niggles aside it’s still better than most plays that do the rounds. For one of Williams’ lesser known works it’s highly watchable and a notable theatrical event because of its scarcity.
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Robert Chevara
Produced By: Steven M. Levy for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited
Review by: Brian Penn