Speaking to Exeunt last week, writer Joshua Conkel remarked that ‘the theatre scene in New York is geared towards naturalism and quiet, thoughtful plays, so for something like [MilkMilkLemonade] to break through is really rare’. And it’s easy, in Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s twinklingly carbonated production, to imagine that explosion and the cultish aftershock that’s seen it staged some 70 or 80 times since its first production in 2009.
Bright eyed, bushy tailed, lo-fi but highly saturated, the story of a ribbon-twirling farm-boy twirling his way across barriers of gender, sexuality and all the plaid-shirted conventionality of his upbringing is buoyant, careful, care-free fun. But it’s not 2009, and we’re not in New York, instead we’re in a world in which the merz-y, poster-painted language of MilkMilkLemonade is the vocabulary de jour of experimental (and even not-very-experimental) theatre-makers everywhere, so though the mixture hasn’t curdled as it might have, some of the fizz has most definitely gone out of it.
Irrepressible teenager Emory (Daniel Francis-Swaby) dreams of talent-show fame, his chance to be lifted out of his humdrum rural life and the strictures of his bald, homophobic and increasingly demented Nanna (Benedict Hopper). He’s got two friends, a massive chicken named Linda (Laura Evelyn) who’s day of mechanised slaughter in The Machine is creeping close, and Elliot (Sophie Steer), a ‘mean and ugly’ local boy who rips into the teen for his sexuality in public, but enjoys secret sexual experimentation with him in the barn. It performs a neat reversal of the coming of age story, in that Emory begins comfortable with his own sexuality and his own identity, and that it’s through his wide-eyed confidence that the cruelties and foolishness of the society and the systems he exists within are revealed.
It’s cheerful stuff, essentially. It’s affirmative, and it’s humane and it’s even sort of raucous in places – but where it feels like everything should spring into a joyous non-focus, things begin to fall short of expectations. Part of the problem is that the material it self-consciously regurgitates, that it chews over, already feels processed and like it’s been often more insightfully processed by more mainstream media. It’s hard to see where this trumps King of the Hill or even The Simpsons in either textual or formal profundity. It dares us to find it daring, but it drags behind the times.
Conkel’s writing is actually at its best when it drops the pop-culture schtick and allows itself a little more lyricism, as in a chilling monologue from Nanna that describes the aging process as a relentless train of ants, and the conclusion which packs the sort of revolutionary utopian violence that can’t help making you feel a little warm and fuzzy inside. It’s only when Conkel cracks open a spring-fresh, green and supple concept that the vocabulary of pastiche begins to feel dry and languid. There are frequent overlaps with Action Hero’s genre-chewing 2013 show Hoke’s Bluff, but MilkMilkLemonade hits its stride less often and less convincingly.
Its use of the overused and the clichéd feels comfortably realised in James Turner’s fun and flimsy setting, however, and there’s something of the ramshackle Howdy-Doody-Time about it that drips authentic American kitsch. The performances are fantastic too, particularly Francis-Swaby’s gawky but sensuous Emory and Hopper’s Dahlian Nanna.
Conkel’s play is eloquent on the ways in which gender roles and sexual roles are the processed products of a culture that reduces everything and everyone to a saleable product, and it speaks with brash and open-handed confidence. But as vital as its message remains, the medium itself has begun to look over-chewed.
Queer Collage Theatre: Alice Saville talks to Joshua Conkel about MilkMilkLemonade