Pros: The outstanding, gender-bending cast and the humorous take on growing up gay.
Cons: I might have liked to exchange some of the more nonsensical elements for a deeper exploration of gay teen relationships, though only because the latter was done so well.
‘Bittersilly’ is the right adjective to describe this charmingly comic and heartbreakingly sincere play about a gay teen struggling to find acceptance in his Midwestern farming town. Joshua Conkel’s touching tale tells the story of Emory (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who grows up with his cranky old Nanna (Benedict Hopper). Nanna, needless to say, does not approve of Emory’s partiality to a blonde Barbie doll and his desire to become a famous singer. MilkMilkLemonade is also the story of Emory’s complicated relationship with the ball-throwing, flame-kindling Elliot (Sophie Steer) who has an ‘evil twin’ stuck in his calf who tells Elliot to do nasty things. Finally, it is the story of Emory’s friendship with Linda the hen (Laura Evelyn), and his quest to save her from the meat machine on processing day.
The play is orchestrated by a ‘Lady-in-Leotard’ (Georgia Buchanan), who jumps in at appropriate moments to provide the narration or play obscure parts such the evil twin, a hungry spider and the chicken’s translator. If this all sounds rather strange, it was, but the brilliant cast managed to string all the absurd parts together into a coherent and moving whole, and by the end I had become rather fond of all the odd characters.
Being a teenager is not easy for anyone, and Conkel captures the unease and difficulty of growing up a little bit different well. There is a particularly touching moment when Emory asks Elliot to stop calling him ‘faggot’ on the playground after an intimate ‘game’ the two of them like to ‘play’, and Elliot says he cannot, as the other kids would think he actually likes Emory.
Francis-Swaby in particular played his part with a compassionate sincerity, showing Emory balance his growing self-confidence and pleasure in being who he is with the rejection and disapproval around him. You may have noted the gender-defying casting; the cast was chosen without regard to the performers’ gender or ethnicity, which created a powerful statement about identity, a theme that is explored throughout the play. This gave an interesting twist to gay Emory’s relationship with the brutish Elliot, played brilliantly by Sophie Steer as a truly believable mean little boy who turns out to have a soft side. Benedict Hopper as the chain-smoking Nanna also gave a sterling performance, taking obvious delight in the role of the feisty old woman. All the characters are slightly overemphasised, almost caricatures of themselves, but rather than detracting from the play, this gave its themes a more poignant quality.
The most striking part of the set was the hay bales which acted as seats for the audience and gave the set a lovely, dusty Midwestern feel. Scattered across the room were also the chickens – white balloons with feathers and eyes – which, together with the constant soundtrack of clucking, worked surprisingly well. MilkMilkLemonade is a beautifully written, acted and staged piece that explores complex relationships in an absurd and comic manner, and should not be missed.