The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Tennessee Williams
Steven M Levy for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited
Charing Cross Theatre

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Sara Kestlenan as "The Witch of Capri" and Linda Marlowe as Flora Goforth Credit: Nick Haeffner
Lucie Shorthouse as Black and Sanee Raval as Chris Flanders Credit: Nick Haeffner
Linda Marlowe as Flora Goforth and Sanee Raval as Chris Flanders Credit: Nick Haeffner
Sara Kestlenan as "The Witch of Capri" and Sanee Raval as Chris Flanders Credit: Nick Haeffner

A former beauty and Follies girl is in her Amalfi coast villa writing her memoirs, or rather dictating them. She has had a sound system fitted so that her secretary Frances Black (whom she calls Blackie) can hear her and take notes whatever her location. The snatches of recall she dictates are mainly about her four husbands: three married for their money, the last because she loved him.

Flora Goforth is another of Tennessee Williams’s ladies whose best years are over; in fact she is dying, though she doesn’t realise or won’t accept that her illness is terminal. She keeps going on codeine washed down by brandy. Linda Marlowe gives her a hard carapace; she says her daughter is a bitch but we can see where she got it from, though there is a nervous edge. She has security staff, guard dogs and checks out her visitors through binoculars, but both get turned on by the scruffy guy in shorts who has come through the gate that is marked Private.

This guy is Chris Flanders (Sanee Raval), a man in his thirties who says he’s a poet, and some years back a rich old lady did pay for a book of his poems to be published. He has known a number of elderly ladies who all seem to have died soon after befriending him: the Positano coterie have taken to calling him The Angel of Death. Flanders claims he met Mrs Goforth in the US at the Waldorf and she said if he was in Europe to drop in on her. Now he claims to have spent his last resource coming from Naples to do so. Why is he there? What is he after? Is he called Chris for a reason?

Tennessee Williams wrote this play in 1962. A year later, lung cancer killed his lover Frank Merlo. In the programme, director Robert Chevara sees connections but if there are personal revelations here they are not clearly encoded. Though both acts open with a loud cry of pain and the pounding of sea surf, this production can’t hide the fact that the most dramatic thing in the first act is dogs barking. Things after the interval are both confusing and ultimately predictable.

With a guest coming to dinner, Mrs Gosforth dresses up in a what she calls a Kabuki costume (in fact a simple kimono and a fan-like headdress, though putting it on is turned into a ritual) and Flanders is given a sword to wear with a rough robe. Symbols perhaps, but how should they to be read?

These may be people in pain but we don’t feel it, though perhaps finding some sympathy for Flanders's hunger, he’s not eaten for ages. A traverse staging with a deep playing space doesn’t help. Actors are sometimes far distant from half the audience at a time which doesn’t help communication and there is little to suggest the decadently luxurious environment that is surely implied.

Lucie Shorthouse gets increasingly frustrated as the put-upon Miss Black and Joe Ferrera puts the boot in as brutal security guard Rudy, but it is Sara Kestleman as an aristocratic, red-gowned dinner guest, a long-standing frenemy, who brings things to life with her bitchiness and gets her hostess sparring to add sparkle; she also succeeds in seducing the houseboy (Matteo Johnson).

We must be grateful for the chance to see a seldom performed work, but this attempt doesn’t succeed in bringing defibrillation, despite passages of fine writing, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore seems to be its own Angel of Death.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton