Sunday, 26 June 2011

Theatre Review: The Village Bike (Royal Court)


Penelope Skinner’s new play, just opened at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, concerns Becky, a pregnant English teacher who’s relocated to the country with her husband John, where the couple have acquired a cottage with clanking pipes and leaks. Immersed in various pregnancy and baby manuals, the rather pedantic John has developed some set ideas about how Becky should behave during her pregnancy, one of which is: no sex. Frustrated, Becky turns to other outlets, firstly pornography and then an affair with one Oliver Hardcastle, a married man from the village who has a reputation “as not very nice.” The title (also a reference to a sexually promiscuous woman, of course) refers to the bicycle that Becky buys from Oliver; it serves - a bit insistently - as a symbol for her increasingly reckless behaviour during the sultry summer in which her relationship with Oliver develops.

Skinner’s play gets into some provocative areas. It’s especially sharp on marriage, and the ways that pregnancy can change the dynamics of that relationship, on sexual double-standards, and on pornography’s role in promoting female sexual submissiveness as “liberation.” The tone of the writing is slippery: there’s plenty of comedy (some of it of a fairly lowbrow variety) but the piece becomes increasingly unsettling as it progresses. And playing out on a nicely-detailed domestic set that presents the couple’s bedroom and kitchen areas, and Oliver’s living room, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production expertly conveys these shifts in mood. The play isn’t perfect: a couple of late scenes strike false notes, while the conclusion seems oddly retrogressive.

Even during the weaker moments, though, Romola Garai holds the piece together, delivering a stunning performance that pulls us right into Becky’s insecurities, her horniness, and her increasing desperation. Playing the men in her life, Dominic Rowan brings acerbic humour and increasing amounts of menace to the supreme egotist Oliver, while Nicholas Burns’s John, an organic-produce nazi who considers Horlicks to be a viable alternative to cunnilingus, is both exasperating and strangely endearing. In support, Alexandra Gilbreath is pitch-perfect, funny, touching and true as Jenny, the well-meaning neighbour whose inopportune appearances at the couple’s cottage are, we come to discover, an attempt to escape from her own obnoxious offspring (“I can’t tell you how wonderful this is after three days of Bob the Builder!”). As the affable, lonely plumber who ends up being used by Becky, Phil Cornwell maximises his cameo, especially in his first scene which turns into an orgy of innuendo. And although Sasha Waddell is somewhat wasted in a very small role, she manages to make her mark. Overall, then, an impressive production of a pungent and sometimes insightful new play; recommended.

The production runs for 2 hours 25 mins, and is booking until 23 July. Further information here.

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