Milk, Ross Dunsmore’s new play produced by the Traverse Theatre Company, explores the gamut of affective and sexual anxieties through the metaphor of feeding and nourishment. Ash (Cristian Ortega) and Steph (Hellen Mallon), two teenagers, try to come to terms with their nascent desires and their feelings for each other. Danny (Ryan Fletcher) and Nicole (Melody Grove) come on the brink of disaster when the birth of their first child triggers the young woman’s fears about motherhood. Cyril (Cliff Burnett) and May’s (Ann Louise Ross) terror of leaving their apartment makes grocery shopping an impossible ordeal for the elderly couple. The three duos collide when Steph starts fantasizing about her teacher, Mr Doig – or Danny, as we know him.
Overall, however, Milk only touches upon the problem of nourishment, but does not quite explore its full scope. Nicole’s doubts about her ability to love and feed her baby, for example, are only partially explored, while Danny and Ash’s characters’ frustrated appetites and bulimic behaviour receive less attention than they would deserve and both feel underexploited.
Under Orla O’Loughlin’s deft direction, the duos enter and leave the front of the stage with rhythm and fluidity. The play’s protean lighting is also a success. The set, a massive block halfway between a stage and a kitchen counter, makes for some slightly awkward transitions, as the characters have to crouch inside or run around it, while May and Cyril never seem to come close to it.
The idea of food and love, of food as love remains a potent one, and some scenes of Milk explore it beautifully. May and Cyril’s fond re-enactment of an imagined feast, and the old couple’s isolation and slow descent into starvation give way to the most moving moments of the play. Burnett and Ross’s performances offer a delicate portrayal of the old couple’s tender, nostalgic, but lonely intimacy. Ash, who expresses his care for Steph in the form of voucher for various fast food restaurants, provides the play’s comic relief.
At a time when a choice of diet can signify a way of life, and the obsession with ‘ripped’ bodies, as Ash puts it, has never been more prevalent, the interconnection of food and love – be it romantic, motherly, or otherwise – seems a very urgent topic. Although it may fail to engage fully with these questions at times, Milk effectively keeps the audience gripped until its emotional ending.