HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
by Paula Vogel.
Southwark Playhouse (The Little) 77-85 Newington Causeway SE1 6BD To 14 March 2015.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat Sat 3.30pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 17 February.
Li’l theatre, big play, fine production.
Only 18 years gone by and Paula Vogel’s 1997 family drama seems from another age. True, its action looks backward some years, but, were it set in 2015, it would barely make it to the interval. Uncle Peck’s camera would be digital, his images of pre-teen and teenage Li’l Bit stored on computer and, with suspicions about the two spending so much time together, the Maryland police would have had him behind bars within the hour.
What’s gone are the innocence and trust people often lament. But with these characters it brings about a frustration soaked in the lubricious, yet scared of sexual frankness – one of the women shrieks with coarse laughter at suggestions of sex but chokes on the word ‘orgasm’. It’s a prurience reflected in the innuendo of family names, and caught brilliantly by Katharine Heath’s design, which surrounds the audience with the suggestive shop-signs and adverts of a seedy, sex-repressed society.
Vogel’s assurance as a writer is evident as the story snakes back and forward across Li’l Bit’s adolescence and early adulthood. Amid the ‘Greek Chorus’ grotesques of white-faced automata representing her family in Jack Sain’s Southwark revival, Peck is a refuge, but one where a coiled anaconda lies in wait.
It’s a difficult opening, for her character has to introduce this remote world. Yet Olivia Poulet grabs attention and sympathy from the first energetic move and half-comprehending word. Li’l Bit becomes a real person, and Poulet catches immaculately the switching stages of her understanding, the internal combat of trust and discomfort, assertion, shame and compliance in a young, developing personality at different stages of her youth.
It tears her in two as she hands her child’s hair-band to the Chorus teenager, who takes over the character’s dialogue, splitting her from her older consciousness. Poulet’s fine performance is the leading light in a luminous production where everyone contributes, reflecting the certain tread of Sain’s revival. And Vogel’s focus, mixing Li’l Vit’s depth with degrees of superficiality in surrounding characters, ensures that, however technology and social attitudes have changed, her play’s human centre remains as vital as ever.
Li’l Bit: Olivia Poulet.
Peck: William Ellis.
Teenage Greek Chorus: Bryony Corrigan.
Female Greek Chorus: Holly Hayes.
Male Greek Chorus: Joshua Miles.
Director: Jack Sain.
Designer/Costume: Katharine Heath.
Lighting: Ziggy Jacobs.
Sound/Composer: Nathan Klein.