Through the memories of middle-aged Li’l Bit looking back at her childhood, the sexual abuse she suffered from her uncle Peck, the time they spent in the Mustang while he taught her how to drive, a fragmentary portrait emerges of her past and her family in 60s Maryland. Under Jack Sain’s direction, various oddities of presentation – like sudden outbursts of a cappella or neon projections on the back walls – complement Paula Vogel’s shape-shifting script. A chalk-faced chorus of three, playing Li’l Bit’s family and various other parts, provide all the optional extras: they sing a Capella, dance the sock hop, splash in water. Sain’s direction lays on these stylised elements thickly and elegantly.
An instructional tape for learner drivers introduces each scene in an oblique way, with phrases like ‘first gear’ or ‘idling in the neutral gear’. The disorienting and disjointed soundbites reflect the tortured chronology of Li’l Bit’s own recollection. Her story, seemingly an attempt to exorcise traumatic sexual memories from her childhood, is presented in the order she wants. A couple of half baked accents, though jarring at first, fade into the background as the many devices of the production take hold. With a pleasing disregard for age, the cast members take on the roles of the various people who filled Li’l Bit’s world.
The most minor changes in costume signify a great deal: a blue hairband turns Li’l Bit back into a child, while a scarf and rollers transform Bryony Corrigan from chorus member into grandmother. It’s only Uncle Peck who never really changes. He is a constant in Li’l Bit’s memory, age unchanging across the span of decades. William Ellis ensures Peck elicits as much pity as disgust; only once does he raise his voice. His interaction with Li’l Bit is manipulative, certainly, but also gentle and born of profound love.
When she dons the blue hairband, Olivia Poulet adopts the curiosity and the innocence of a young child. Without it, as she remembers her late teens and early twenties, she is bolshy and defensive. Just as the lights go up at the start of each act Poulet, sitting on a tyre swing, almost indiscernibly flicks her face into a smile – she actively and visibly raises her defences; a reminder, perhaps, that this deeply personal story is told on her terms, with her permission. She is in control.
On the face of it, bright colours and a sense of humour give the production a lightness that is deliberately, and effectively, at odds with the play’s dark complexity. Li’l Bit’s remembered world seems a cheery place. Doo wop fills the air and everything is chromium plated, like the 60s small town USA that’s been fed to us by film and TV so often and for so many years. The trappings of some abstraction of America – interstate signs and crucifixes – cover the walls. But that sheen of nostalgia belies the fatality and vulnerability of the characters that populate the old world. They are ill equipped to deal with life, or scared to, because of the fire and brimstone faith that’s been their daily drill. They tacitly accept – or, rather, happily ignore – the sexual abuse of minors. They are hollowed out by war, or raped by their uncles. Hers is a nasty world. Her family is infested with a fascination for sex, but sex that privileges masculine pleasure and male control. For the girl that had to grow up in a house where sex was part of what gave men power, this play – this fractured memoir – is redress. In Vogel’s play and Sain’s production, power and the final word belong entirely to Li’l Bit.