Review: The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Charing Cross Theatre

It’s been 60 years since Tennessee Williams’ play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore premiered, and since then the production has rarely been revived. But now a new adaptation has reached our shores and is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October. 

Set in a mountaintop villa just off the Amalfi Coast, Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth (Linda Marlowe) is penning her memoir with the help of long-suffering secretary Blackie (Lucie Shorthouse), whilst living on a diet of pills and liquor. She’s had somewhat of a colourful life, having married four times to, in her own words, two apes, one ostrich and finally a man she loved but who tragically died. What Sissy either doesn’t know or won’t accept, is that she’s dying, and as she nears the end she’s visited by a mysterious man, Chris Flanders (Sanee Raval), who has the ominous nickname of ‘the angel of death’ due to his habit of visiting elderly woman just before they die. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore was written a year before the death of Tennessee Williams’ partner Frank Merlo from lung cancer, and Williams’ worries and reflections of mortality are woven into the play. The problem is that there’s a lot of talk and not a great deal of action, therefore the characters’ musings quickly become repetitive and a little tiresome at times. It’s not surprising to learn that the initial reaction to the play in the 1960s was poor, so Williams redrafted the play, hoping for a better response. He didn’t get it and the redrafted play closed after only five performances.  

Director Robert Chevara is no stranger to the works of Williams, having previously directed 

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (which also starred Linda Marlowe), and the award-winning Vieux Carré, but he has his work cut out with this production. He attempts to bring the play bang up to date with the inclusion of mobile phones and tablets, but the dialogue is sometimes at odds with this. Likewise, the play is supposed to be set in Italy, but other than a few sound effects of waves crashing, it could be set anywhere. Nicolai Hart-Hanson’s set design fulfils its purpose, with a bar, table and chairs and bed, but some of the furnishing ideas seem to be at odds with the lifestyle Sissy can apparently afford. 

All of the familiar Williams’ tropes are here, there’s a nervous Southern belle contemplating ageing, not to mention a lot of cigarettes and alcohol but sadly this isn’t one of his strongest works. Thankfully what saves the play from falling off a cliff edge is the cast, who do their best with the material, and despite a couple of stumbles on dialogue (a result of either opening night nerves or dealing with the text-heavy script), they all do a fine job. Linda Marlowe plays the insufferable Sissy well for the most part, but it’s when she shows her tender, fragile side that she really comes alive. Sanee Raval manages to capture the strangeness of Chris well, he’s somewhat menacing and arrogant at times, while shows his softer side as the play draws to a close. Lucie Shorthouse is great as the overworked widow Blackie, whose patience with her boss is wearing thinner and thinner each day. Matteo Johnson is wonderfully cheeky as Giulio who knows a lot more English than he lets on to Sissy, and Joe Ferrera also adds a little light with his portrayal of security-conscious Rudy. 

Dark comedy comes in the form of Sissy’s acquaintance, the ‘Witch of Capri’ (played by the wonderful Sara Kestelman), and the play really comes alive when the pair, the so-called ‘Bitch’ and ‘Witch’ share the stage, trading insults and gossip over a martini or three. Kestelman steals the show as Sissy’s bitchy friend, topping up her glass whenever she can, while flirting with any – and every man she meets. It injects a much-needed dose of energy into the often lagging play. 

There are some interesting moments and the play does feature some thought-provoking lines around life and mortality but these are few and far in between. While The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore might not be one of Tennessee Williams’ best plays, it may appeal to hardcore fans of his to have the opportunity to see this rarely performed production.   

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October.

Photo credit: Nick Haeffner

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