Milk and Gall – Theatre503, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Mathilde Dratwa

Director: Lisa Spirling

Cast your mind back to the heady days of November 2016. TV series The Crown first hit our screens, Moana was in the cinemas, and Donald Trump became the US President. Rather than these other shining cultural highlights, it is the shock presidential result that forms one of two interwoven strands of narrative here as we chart the fear, struggle and worry of a politically engaged new mother (whose baby was born right as the election results were announced) in the first year of Trump’s tenure.

After a difficult birth, Vera and her husband Michael take their baby (named Rod, after Vera’s political idol) back to their New York apartment. But then what? Difficulties with bonding, with breastfeeding and with intimacy begin almost immediately, and as the year progresses Vera’s experience becomes one of stress and disconnection from who she felt she was. The difficult transition to motherhood is made more difficult by the country’s polarisation, resulting in tough consequences for her adult relationships too.

Having the double focus of Trump and the baby means we cannot be dedicated to each. It feels one should be adding context and depth to the other in neat symbiosis, but it turns out to be an unsatisfying exploration of either. Trump and the country is framed through the white liberal lens of Vera with the only visible counterbalancing Trump supporter (her mother-in-law) coming across weakly, a chief character definition being that she watches Fox News. The story of new motherhood has beautiful insights and tender moments but becomes unwieldy when hallucinations (like Hilary Clinton appearing for a pep talk and rendition of Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien), mental health issues and identity troubles are added to the mix. As a constant foil to all this the husband character, Michael, is allowed one brief moment of interest where he rages that he needs to be considered in the relationship too. Everything else is just cheer and equanimity that feels disingenuous rather than supportive as his wife breaks down.

As Vera, MyAnna Burning is great to watch – energetic, emotive and very funny at times. She provides the pass through which all the energy of the other actors and story elements must flow. It’s a lot for one person, but is lightly and deftly handled here.

This feels the perfect time for theatre and art to really explore the impact of that election in 2016 with the benefit of the period being neatly concluded and consequences more or less visible. An insightful take on motherhood where the modern guilt about formula feeding can play with the age-old issue of postpartum depression and annoying in-laws would also have huge potential. But combined here these ideas sap strength from the other rather than add momentum. The audience comes away with memories of what we’ve seen, but no greater understanding of either issue.

Runs until 27 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Partly funny, mainly unfocused

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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