Coming of age tales are nothing new, yet watching Isley Lynn’s funny and insightful Skin a Cat, it’s striking how few about the female experience come readily to mind, let alone those which speak in frank, balanced and intimate terms about women’s sexuality.
The semi-autobiographical journey through first snogs to adult love affairs is, in many way, a classic redemption story. But, for the central character Alana, it’s self- rather than public acceptance, she must find as she suffers from vaginismus – a psychosexual condition which stops her having penetrative sex. It’s Alana’s tale of denial, anger, cure-seeking and acceptance gives this first-person performance its central arc.
The tone is light and fun – the stuff of life-affirming teenage tales such as My Mad Fat Diary and Adrian Mole. Alana, despite her woes, is never defined by them. She’s successful, attractive and fun. Compellingly played by Lydia Larson, Alana is one of those rare well-written female characters whose inner pain is clearly communicated to the audience, despite it being carefully concealed to those around her in the world of the play .
The comedic moments are made up of the stuff we all recognise from our own paths to adulthood – the cringeworthy chats, or lack of, with parents about the birds and the bees; clueless fumbles at teen parties. But Skin a Cat walks the fine line between the personal and the puerile with ease. It’s confessional but not campaigning, whilst doing much to illuminate a little-known and little understood condition. In fact, it’s much more of a plea for acceptance and recognition that in our sexuality – as with the rest of our existence – we are not all the same. And that’s fine. Alana doesn’t need to change.
Nothing here is designed to shock. Director Blythe Stewart knows how to breathe warmth and humanity into an uncomfortable subject matter. The charming and funny Alana, slightly exposed in her substantial flesh-toned underwear, recounts her experiences on and around a simple bed. Simulated sex scenes are fully clothed and amusingly abstracted in a clever directorial flourish that keeps the focus on the ideas in play rather than the acts depicted.
Aided by Jessica Clark playing all the female characters in her life and Jassa Ahluwalia playing all the men, there’s real affection and understanding in the interactions. Even in those concerning Alana’s emotionally and physically reticent mother, blame is carefully resisted. Clark does a great job of switching between a being the university mate on a mission to explore the smorgasbord of sex on campus, to the uptight mum, friendly GP and ideological psychologist.
The play itself is well-suited to new venue The Bunker, which has a laidback, fringe style. In a transformed underground park beneath the Menier Chocolate Factory, you’re encouraged to arrive early and stay late – with the lure of extra entertainments. This environment takes the edge off the startling stuff onstage; in a more traditional venue,the issues might feel more challenging – for better or for worse. As it stands, Skin a Cat is a smart, fun and thought-provoking rummage around a rarely tackled subject.
Skin a Cat is on until 5th November 2016 at The Bunker. Click here for more details.