“Boys have to be boys”
I knew I’d like MilkMilkLemonade from the moment I read the publicity which introduced the word ‘bittersilly’ into my lexicon, a twist on the bittersweet realities of growing up different that reflects the persuasive, almost daft charm of Joshua Conkel’s writing. From the outset, it’s clear we’re in for something alternative (alt-country, even) as James Turner’s design has us sat on a circle of haybales with chickens made of balloons all around and a nervy narrator introducing us to the homespun delights of life on the chicken farm for Emory and his Nanna.
Except those delights are few and far between. Emory is a gay fifth-grader who loves nothing more than twirling his ribbon, playing with his doll Starlene and his best friend Linda (who just happens to be a giant chicken) and rehearsing his unique routine to ‘Anything Goes’ for the talent show that will be his ticket outta Hicksville. But that’s not how a boy’s supposed to be as the grim-faced oxygen-mask-guzzling Nanna constantly reminds him, Emory ought to spend more time with bullying pyromaniac Elliot from down the road, a true man’s man in the making.
Naturally it’s not quite what it seems as Elliot and Emory do play together but not in the heterosexual way Nanna demands, but rather playing a twisted version of house in which they experiment sexually and socially with their gender roles. This is something Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s production plays up beautifully in its casting choices – Benedict Hopper drags up brilliantly as the vehement Nanna but Sophie Steer brings a real thought-provoking quality to Elliot, asking questions about how gender roles are constructed for boys (and for girls) in the desperation to present a butch façade.
But for all the serious issues flying around, it is the humour that brings the boys to the yard as Conkel lets his imagination run riot. Georgia Buchanan’s lady-in-leotard is the most blessed recipient here as she variously fulfils the role of narrator, the deadly but darling spider Rochelle, the parasitic twin living in Elliot’s thigh, the translator of Linda’s chicken-speak and the living embodiment of Starlene who near steals the show with a fabulous rendition of ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’. Released from the confines of the narrative, Buchanan truly revels in the playful freedom accorded to her.
Even within the play, Daniel Francis-Swaby finds an innate sweetness as Emory and there’s something lovely about a play about a young gay protagonist who has already accepted his sexuality thus freeing up the writing to focus elsewhere. Laura Evelyn’s Linda has squawking good fun too even as Conkel never quite lets us forget the darkness in the drama, it is processing day at the chicken plant after all, and even in the brilliant humour of the Blanche DuBois pastiche – the best bittersilliest moment – there’s a poignancy that lingers long after the laughter.