Steph: Can I kiss you?
Ash: I’m eating chicken.
Through sharp one-liners, silver-lined nostalgia and knotty topics connected to sex and parenthood, Ross Dunsmore tries to understand our needs and desires. A desire to kiss, to feed one another, to dance when your body is too old and refuses to do so. Above all, Milk explores the age-old desire to be wanted.
Split between three generations, the play gradually interlocks as the strands between characters start to tie together.
Steph and Ash are the youngest duo, played by Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega. At 14 they cross the tricky teenage ground, learning about sex through trial and much error. Gender plays an important part, with Dunsmore tapping into the female teenage psyche of self-hatred, with the overwhelming need to be desired drawing Steph into dangerous territory. Steph and Ash have the funniest one-liners, the most intriguing arguments and a spark of something really dangerous in their childish back-and-forth banter. In these inexperienced teenagers, Milk explores the wild rage of passion and the danger of indifference, as Steph goes to an extreme for attention when she feels she’s not getting enough from Ash.
The feeling of liking being liked is now more complex than ever with the existence of social media. Though Dunsmore jumps in at the deep, slightly clichéd, end of the pool – with a move so naïve it is hard to believe Steph would do what she does – he does show how arguments no longer just happen between two people. When phones are involved, the spread of information is limitless.
Nicole: And you’ll stay with me?
Nicole: I don’t just mean now. I mean always.
While the idea of nourishment in the other two generations are more abstract, it is plainly laid out in the story of Danny (Ryan Fletcher) and his very pregnant wife, Nicole (Melody Grove). As she says, ‘milk is love’. The couple struggle with Nicole’s inability to feed her child naturally, her stubbornness in her post-partum depression driving them apart.
This isn’t helped when rumours spread about a sexual relationship between Danny and his student Steph. It’s that infuriating moment when you want to yell at the play/ book/ TV programme to tell the truth, because then everything will be okay, but he doesn’t defend himself. What ‘Mr. Doig’ has done might not have been sensible, but an ill-advised kiss on the cheek is very different to predatory, paedophilic rape. Certain strands of story like this are dropped and never returned to, perhaps the fault of trying to fit three complex couples on stage at once. Sacrifices are made by each couple in the development of their stories, leaving a tinge of incompleteness. Character leaps are made between scenes that dismantle the gentle vulnerability that is so carefully built up in them.
May: I could chop off a limb. Boil up your toes.
Cyril: Not even hungry.
May: Well, you got to eat.
Our final couple is May and Cyril, beautifully performed by Ann Louise Ross and Tam Dean Burn. In them we see society’s treatment of the elderly today. Their bodies are collapsed into themselves in their armchairs, a large distance between them. They talk of the good old days and the glorious food they had, as they wither away, afraid of the outside world that has changed so much around them. Their fear is tangible and both actors say so much with the smallest of movements.
In this debut full-length play, Dunsmore unpacks our modern urges as they fight against our natural instincts. In all three of the pairings, love is seen almost as an equal nourishment to food, but ultimately practicality overrides romanticism, and in the end a lack of food governs all major events and decisions. The separate strands would be more interesting and more developed individually, but as each couple gradually collide under Orla O’Loughlin’s direction in a large, high-end Ikea kitchen, they are cathartic for each other. Loss – of control, of innocence, of life – fills the stage seeping out into the seats like a spilt bottle of milk.