Tag Archives: Charing Cross Theatre

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.

Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.

The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.

But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.

And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.

When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?

Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.

This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.

Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.

Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.

Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.

There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Broken Wings – Charing Cross Theatre

A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.

Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.

In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.

And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.

The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.

And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.

Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.

There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.

But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.

And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.

Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.

But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.

The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.

Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.

Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.

Broken Wings is at Charing Cross Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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