By Simon Longman. The 9th Floor Productions. Fortyfivedownstairs. 28 February – 10 March 2024

In rural Herefordshire, the landscape is beautiful, but it won’t provide you with a job, let alone a future.  That’s the prospect that faces twenty-somethings Paul (William McKenna) and his mate Snowy (Laurence Boxhall) in this blackly comic, poignant, sometimes absurd, almost surreal play that is about many things but centrally a friendship. 

It’s carried by two excellent performances (with well maintained Herefordshire accents), McKenna and Boxhall handling the shifts in tone from funny to sad, from harangue to revelation, and realistic to ridiculous with accomplished ease.

Increasingly desperate Paul has an Honours degree in History (his thesis was on the domestic policies of Henry VII), a virtually useless qualification for the career in ‘media’ that he’s sure he wants.  ‘Media’ is now, it’s glamorous, it’s where it’s at.  He’s constantly on the phone responding to job adverts, only to get a brush-off time after time.  Anyone who’s ever applied for a job only to be told by some indifferent bastard that you don’t have the experience, that you’re too far away, etc, will recognise these comic, but awful phone calls.  Paul says he’s living in ‘a prison without walls’. 

Snowy, seemingly more relaxed, and slightly goofy, has more of a restless, unfocussed agitation, but he’s still able to suggest to exasperated Paul, ‘Let’s go for a walk.’  He finds a needed focus when he gloms onto a sick and maybe dying cow – which he names ‘Sandy’ – and persuades Paul that they must save it.  Saving – or euthanising - Sandy then becomes the loose spine (or A-plot) for the play.

Played in the round at the ever-adaptable fortyfivedownstairs space, Louisa Fitzgerald’s set is no more than a simple square of grass, on which the lads come and go, bicker, and piss each other off even while caring for each other in the way of inarticulate twenty-something blokes.  Fitzgerald’s costume design is nicely judged too.  Bespectacled Paul is already dressing neatly for the urban career he wants, while Snowy clumps around in gumboots, kind of grubby in a shapeless coat.  

Milked gives us a developing situation over a considerable timespan.  Director Iain Sinclair – together with Richard Vabre’s lighting – makes this clear and seamless, without any diminution of the necessary pace.  He uses all four exits of the square stage, and we always know where one of other of the boys has come from or is going. 

Apart from Sandy the cow and the boys’ guesswork remedies, what comes to absorb our attention – and provide real tension – is the gradual reveal of the boys’ lives, backstories and predicaments, that slip out under pressure.  Little grabs of exposition – always disguised and justified - glimpses and hints of things that are going on off-stage, as it were. 

Under Snowy’s apparent passivity, there’s a weighty fatalism about his future – and we learn why.  Meanwhile Paul’s facility for carpentry and woodwork – something Snowy admires and encourages – is something Paul downplays or shrugs off.  Working with your hands just doesn’t have the class status of a career in the ill-defined ‘media’, does it?

The play premiered in 2015 and its issues – unemployment, education leading nowhere, rural poverty, collapse of the welfare state – have only grown worse in Britain in the interim.  In the 1970s, the Sex Pistols were already screaming ‘No Future’.  That’s what’s facing Paul and Snow now.  Counter to this underlying bleak content are the terrific performances of McKenna and Boxhall, their characters’ vitality, humour and refusal of despair.  Milked more than manages to hold a balance – as director Iain Sinclair says – between real and surreal, hilarious and sad.

Michael Brindley

Photographer: Ben Fon

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