Penelope Skinner’s latest play is, at heart, a sex farce. It begins like a gender-reversed Seven Year Itch, complete with a stifling heat wave and kettles which simmer in sympathy with boiling desires, yet by the conclusion Skinner has created a portrait of sexual instability which is as convincingly real as it is unsettling.
Becky (Romola Garai) is happy with her marriage and ambivalent about her pregnancy, and thrown into chaos by her suddenly raging libido and her husband’s total refusal to satisfy it. Against the backdrop of a middle-class existence in a sleepy Home Counties village she turns first to pornography and then to local lotharios to quell her urges, with consequences which throw doubts upon everything she has excluded from her outwardly perfect life.
Garai is incredible in the central role, mapping Becky’s descent from sparky, glowing intelligence to an incomprehensible hunger in perfect, subtle steps.Likewise, her relationship with her appallingly caring husband John (a perfectly cast Nicholas Burns) is brilliantly observed. The world of organic butchers and canvas bags which John inhabits has never felt more cloying nor more true. Similarly, Alexandra Gilbreath’s performance of village bore Jenny is masterfully irritating. The stifling country escape of thatched cottages and sprawling barn conversions creates a thrillingly inappropriate backdrop to Becky’s late night masturbation and the script’s knowingly kitsch double entendres.
Skinner has taken the skill for incisive observations of modern sexuality which she displayed to considerable effect in Fucked and developed it into a masterful indictment of gender hypocrisy. The scene in which Becky squirmingly negotiates Jenny’s assumption that it is John’s overactive sex drive which is causing their marital breakdown, an acceptable problem for a middle-class couple to experience, is exquisitely horrid.
Perhaps because of the emotional gulf between the broad comedy with which it opens and the subsequent unfolding horror, there are occasional incongruous moments and an unfortunate sag towards the middle, but taken as a whole The Village Bike is terrific. Design elements, from the use of poor-man’s-process to David McSeveney’s witty sound design, which swings from cod-classical overture to pornstar orgasms, are perfectly judged.
On one level Skinner has reached into the darker territories of sexual fantasy and power relations, yet on another she has found something far more original. The baby chairs, pregnancy manuals and tinkling bedtime mobiles which Becky is assaulted with become gradually monstrous against her imprecations of individuality. Maternity is placed in stark opposition to personal autonomy, and though there is little strength in Becky’s flings, they sound out like desperate shrieks from the prison of imminent motherhood. There are other threads here too, including discomfiting allusions to the Foucauldian hysterical woman, the woman brutalised by her own excessive sexual yearnings.