It was a bold decision for the Traverse to make a debut by a new writer its flagship production for the 2016 Fringe; and to say Orla O’Loughlin’s exquisite production does full justice to Ross Dunsmore’s first work as a playwright, which arrived at the Traverse as an unsolicited script is, if anything, to understate her achievement.
Star rating: ****
Venue: Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
The play follows the stories of three couples living somewhere in urban Scotland, in what seems like a just-in-the-future world, even more socially fragmented than our own. There’s a schoolteacher, Danny and his lovely wife Nicole, about to give birth to their first child. There’s the old couple, May and Cyril, frightened to go out, fading away from cold and hunger in their lonely flat. And there are 14-year-old schoolkids Ash and Steph, he a nice boy good with computers, she desperately needy and sexually confused.
The linking theme is nurture, as Nicole struggles to breastfeed her new baby and withdraws affection from her husband, May slips away without food, and Steph all but ruins her own life and Danny’s in her frantic quest for attention. On a suitably bleak and flexible set by Fred Meller, with subtle supporting sound by Danny Krass, O’Loughlin’s powerful ensemble of actors, with Tam Dean Burn stepping in at short notice to replace Cliff Burnett, deliver beautiful, searching performances, full of both humour and pain.
The play itself sometimes seems a little too fragile to sustain so much high-powered attention. The strongest writing gathers around the character of Melody Grove’s Nicole, struggling with what she feels is a fundamental failure of womanhood and nurturing; elsewhere, the texture of the dialogue seems more predictable and the bleak, slightly melodramatic world often struggles to make itself believable, in a society that suffers as much from hyper-surveillance as from such utter abandonment.
Between them, though, the cast and creative team of Milk conjure up a fine, thought-provoking piece of theatre. One that touches passionately on the sense of loss and of poor nourishment that stalk our society in a time of such apparent plenty, and such garish, heartless affluence.