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Edinburgh review: Milk (Traverse Theatre)

This play from the Open Script Submission pile doesn't quite feel real enough

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Milk
© Sally Jubb

First the good things. Milk, a new play by Ross Dunsmore, was chosen by the Traverse Theatre to be one of the main planks of its Edinburgh Festival season from the Open Submission pile. It is a new play by a first time playwright - and as such a cause for a small cheer.

It is given a Rolls Royce of a production by director Orla O'Loughlin and the team that brought you last year's smash hit Swallow and as such is presented with a smooth, easy style that is worth a second cheer, particularly for the versatile lighting by Philip Gladwell or Fred Meller's setting. It is well-written, in the sense that the words flow and sometimes rise off the page.

But - and here's the problem - it just isn't a play. It's a thought, too under-nourished to thrive as drama, however carefully that problem is disguised. This is ironic because the theme of Milk is nourishment, and how food, its provision and its absence, is the glue that sticks society and families together.

It takes three unrelated couples and tells their stories which, with crushing inevitability, become intertwined. There's Danny, a teacher and Nicole, his heavily-pregnant wife who has become obsessed with her own fecundity. There are young Steph, a troubled teenager whose self-image is corrupted by the sexualisation of social media and its obsession with the perfect body and her admirer Ash, a nice boy whose idea of a good night out is eating as much chicken as he can at Nando's. Then there are Cyril and May, pensioners so frightened by modern life that they are allowing themselves to starve to death, stuck in their armchairs like a couple from Beckett, waiting for the end.

There's some snappy dialogue and some sharp observation. I was moved by Cyril (a lovely performance by Tam Dean Burn, stepping in at short notice), and the contrast between his courage in the Second World War and his terror of the dogs in the street where he lives. Ash, beautifully played by Cristian Ortega is an endearing character.

But essentially Milk feels unreal. Its story unfolds in a world where social workers are talked of but never intervene. However cash-starved the NHS, I simply didn't believe that a midwife wouldn't help more when Nicole can't breastfeed; I certainly can't imagine that a middle-class woman who has read so many maternity guides wouldn't have a clue how to proceed or would be willing to let her child starve. Equally, I found the relationship between Steph and Danny unconvincing.

And once I had lost faith, the play crumbled around me. Theatre asks us to suspend our disbelief in its essential unreality in order to believe its depiction of truths. Once truthfulness is sacrificed, it's very hard to care, however well-intentioned the subject or beautiful the staging. A sad miss.

Milk runs at the Traverse Theatre until 28 August (not 15 or 22).

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