45DS The Ninth Floor Laurence Boxhall and William McKenna in MILKED photo by Ben FonIn the middle of a pasture in Herefordshire sits a half-empty bottle of milk. Paul – early 20s with glasses – wanders through the field, listening to the radio through an app on his phone. The announcer promises some winter sun and hits from the 90s on this quiet Monday morning in rural England.

Snowy – also early 20s, no glasses – arrives and asks Paul to join him for a walk. Paul doesn’t want to go, he’s got things to do. The friends push and pull gently, but Paul wants to apply for jobs and Snowy just wants to enjoy the fresh air and chats with his mate.

When Snowy leaves, Paul makes a lot of calls looking for work. He wants something in the media. He doesn’t have any experience. He’s just finished uni, but he studied history – and none of the recruiters think that will help. He’s persistent though.

Phone call after phone call, turning around and around, stepping over and about that lone bottle of milk. Getting nowhere. It’s clear that Paul wants to leave Herefordshire. But as soon as the job agencies hear what he’s studied and where he lives, he’s shut down immediately. Hung up on or left silently twisting on his end of the calls.

When Snowy returns from his long walk, he tells Paul he’s spotted a large cow in the next field over. He wants Paul to come look. He wants Paul to come meet Sandy – he’s already named her and she’s the biggest cow he’s ever seen. He wants Paul to be interested in the mundanity of life in their rural county.

Milked by British writer Simon Longman is a thoughtful, generous and probing dissection of a pair of young men whose futures are ahead of them, who already feel left behind. Paul has been to uni, but that hasn’t helped. Snowy thinks he’ll be happy staying in the village, but he’s scared of what will become of him if Paul gets work in London.

The play is also blackly comic. Sandy the cow is an ongoing off-stage presence, a source of discussion for the two young guys, something that keeps them together in-between Paul’s daily search for employment. And when Sandy suddenly gets sick, Paul and Snowy work together to help her – even after she starts bleeding from the eyes.

Director Iain Sinclair’s production, currently on at fortyfivedownstairs, is beautifully crafted. The fake-grassed stage, in the middle of an audience on four sides, is a place for the men to spar – mostly with words and the very telling body-language of guys whose lives are on hold.

When the physicality amps up later in the piece, thanks to fight choreographer Lyndall Grant, it’s visceral and affecting in a way stage violence usually isn’t.

William McKenna’s Paul is on edge, desperate to get a start – and we can see that in the way McKenna is always moving, constantly turning as he is questioned over and over. The character goes along to get along with Snowy and we see the exhaustion in McKenna’s eyes, the spark of possibly starting a new life, slowly fading.

Laurence Boxhall’s Snowy moves and speaks slowly, as if all his energy has been drained by a family who isn’t kind or supportive. The way Boxhall holds himself shows us a directionless young man, without him having to make any big moves.

Longman’s writing is muscular and layered – telling this tale of agony for a generation who thinks they’ve done the right thing to grow and evolve and make their place in the world, only to be left behind because they don’t live in the right place or they don’t know the right people.

Sinclair keeps the show moving and gently balances the subtle changes in tone throughout. The odd subplot of the sick and dying cow somehow works alongside a story of hopelessness in rural England. Some late play turns are handled beautifully and dynamically by McKenna and Boxhall, with Sinclair guiding them carefully and precisely across the simple green expanse in front of us.

Richard Vabre’s lighting adds many extra dimensions, both dramatic and comical. That bottle of milk at the beginning is under its own spot, to start with. And as Paul grapples with those endless arguments about needing experience to get experience, he’s lit from above at four angles – constantly under observation and casting a long shadow in every direction.

Milked is a smart play – its clever rapid-fire dialogue masking a deeper hurt and complicated feelings. And as each layer of the characters is exposed, the questions of staying and going become harder to answer -even as it becomes clear that one of them has to leave.

This production is tight, focused and entwines the darkness and the light in a clear-eyed, entertaining way. The audience is in the hands of theatremakers at the top of their craft.

fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 1 March 2024
Season continues to 10 March 2024
Information and bookings:

Image: Laurence Boxhall and William McKenna in MILKED – photo by Ben Fon

Review: Keith Gow