“You think I’m this respectable married teacher person”
Penelope Skinner makes her Royal Court debut upstairs with The Village Bike, having previously been a member of their Young Writers Programme and being the recipient of the 2011 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright (assumedly given before she co-authored Greenland…). It’s an unsettling portrait of a just-pregnant woman, Becky, recently moved to the country and struggling to come to terms with her new life and the restrictions placed on her both by her condition and her do-gooder husband who has taken to the role of father-to-be with great gusto but rather neglecting the role of husband, leading Becky to deal with her frustrations in ever-reckless ways.
It is a very frank play, dealing with female sexuality in a way which is rarely seen (at least by me) onstage as Becky turns first to her husband’s furtive stash of p*rn films and then to a heady set of illicit liaisons with local bad boy Oliver Hardcastle, from whom she keeps her pregnancy secret, as she lives out her (and his) wildest sexual fantasies in the oppressive atmosphere of the heatwave that affecting just about everyone in the village. For no-one is particularly happy, especially the married people: fertility issues, dealing with continued absences due to work travel, difficulties of parenthood, sexual frustration, all these issues reverberate around the populace of the village, all underscored by the overbearing fear of loneliness that Skinner argues characterises rural living here.
As is customary with the Royal Court, a stellar cast has been pulled together by director Joe Hill-Gibbins, led by Romola Garai as Becky who is nothing short of excellent as a seemingly demure English teacher driven by her emotions into pursuing a fantasy life to try and escape the crushing reality of what she has let herself in for. The looks of ambivalence on her face as she looks upon the baby paraphernalia that so excites those around her, the lack of comprehension of how significant her pregnancy is to other people is pointed up nicely by the satisfaction she feels from being viewed as a sexual object by the men of the village: this is a woman not quite ready to subsume her identity into that of motherhood just yet and Garai manages to portray this complexity with conviction.
Dominic Rowan is excellently cast as Oliver, the man who facilitates Becky’s escape into fantasy, a supremely confident, swaggering tower of masculinity, utterly convinced of his irresistible charm and sexual prowess and equally unafraid to use his manipulative power to call things to a halt once he starts to get bored, hinting at the darker sides to his personality. Nicholas Burns as the eco-warrior champion husband, afraid to have sex with his wife for fear of hurting the baby and enemy of plastic bags, is strong though rendered a little toothless by Skinner, it might have been nice to show a little more depth to this character, a touch more of the charisma that must have whisked Becky away from her old life into marriage. And Phil Cornwell as the plumber employed to look at the noisily creaking pipes of the new house yet finding himself being used and abused in different ways brings a genuine charm.
The lascivious comedy works well and the first half powers through nicely though I felt the second half doesn’t quite carry the same momentum through to the end, the introduction of a key new character late on is clumsily done despite Sasha Waddell’s best efforts and the wrapping up of proceedings into the too-neat ending felt something of an easy way out, leaving most of the issues raised within tantalisingly unresolved. That, I could live with in the end, the feeling of ambivalence throughout is surprisingly effective in that none of these characters are totally likeable, or otherwise; the final coda felt very misplaced to me though which was a shame as Skinner’s writing is largely to be commended for its depth and maturity.
Hill-Gibbins’ production uses the space upstairs at the Royal Court very well, suggesting a range of different rural domestic settings often at the same time, directly contrasting Becky’s real life and fantasy life. And Helen Goddard’s design creates a great atmosphere of barn living, especially in the unfinished main set with boxes everywhere, leaking pipes, and loft insulation peeling from the ceiling. Throw in one of the supporting performances of the year from the ever-reliable Alexandra Gilbreath as the well-intentioned nosy neighbour, everything combines to great effect to make a really rather recommended evening.