THE VILLAGE BIKE
THE VILLAGE BIKE, Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Red Line Productions at the Old Fitz, 7 June-8 July 2017. Photography by Andre Vasquez: above - Rupert Reid and Gabrielle Scawthorn; below - Sophie Gregg, Gabrielle Scawthorn and Benedict Wall; below again - Benedict Wall and Gabrielle Scawthorn
Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike was a huge hit when first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2011; it was subsequently produced off-Broadway and did well there also. On the surface it’s a classic play to achieve such (semi-) mainstream success, with its accessible humour and somewhat edgy, morally arguable drama. But beneath the polished surface lurks something darker and more ambitiously ambiguous.
Director Rachel Chant steers her cast on a clear path through some of the more double-edged dilemmas facing modern folk, especially those who tree-change to a country village with high-falutin ideas about what they might achieve there. In the main Chant gives space and air for Gabrielle Scawthorn in the lead role of Becky to be at her subtly brilliant and intelligent best.
Becky is newly pregnant and not happy. Her husband John (Benedict Wall) is an environmental and consumerist nazi who apparently sees no contradiction between that and being an adman who shoots cosmetics commercials for a (very good) living. Beck’s pregnancy has also turned him into a superficially perfect husband – he obsessively reads how-to baby books and guards her behaviour and food intake with zeal. However, it’s actually suffocating and all about whinily-disguised but clearly expressed power and he’s driving her bonkers.
Their newly renovated gorgeous country cottage is a problem too: the plumbing is tricky and incomplete – the pipes form a piquant part of the sumptuously detailed and cleverly lit two-storey set (Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt with lighting by Hartley TA Kemp) – and the intermittent racket from them forms a witty counterpoint to Nate Edmondson’s equally sumptuous, tongue-in-cheek sound design. Local plumber and lugubrious widower Mike (Jamie Oxenbould) is tasked with fixing them and diagnoses a bad case of “sweaty pipes”.
All that’s missing at this point to turn the evening into Carry On Up The Bike is a blue reference to a brass ballcock and a few screws; thankfully Skinner’s script and characters veer into more interesting and less obvious territory with Becky’s purchase of a secondhand bicycle. (The play’s title is enough to be going on with as one of the playwright’s facetious homages to sexism and misogyny.)
The bike belongs to a local woman whose husband Oliver (Rupert Reid) has taken it upon himself to sell while she is abroad. He’s a sexy bugger and Becky is easy prey, not least because hubby John won’t go near her with his penis for fear of disturbing her precious cargo. (“It’s not in my vagina, it’s in my womb!” she tells him, exasperated, to no avail). Consequently Becky is as horny as a mountain goat and after resorting to John’s stash of old porn videos, louche Oliver appears like a character from one of them.
What happens for the rest of the play is surprising and predictable by turns – often in the same scene and therefore quite absorbing and effective. It’s divided into two halves of approximately an hour with an interval. The relatively lighthearted first half gives way to a deeper delve into sexual politics with a sharp eye on how women’s sexuality continues to be treated by society at large despite (or perhaps because of) decades of feminism and other attempts to promote awareness and change.
Despite its best efforts, The Village Bike doesn’t entirely succeed in plausibly overturning the stereotypical tropes – Becky as maneater, Becky as unable to separate love and sex (as a man can do and women can’t) and so on – but is nevertheless made more powerful than it probably is by Gabrielle Scawthorn’s performance. As already mentioned, her work is habitually subtle and intelligent and this has rarely been so well demonstrated as it is as she traverses the minefield of her daily life.
She is beautifully supported by the rest of the company, with Rupert Reid managing the delicate balance between hunk and hideous with élan and heart throbbing conviction. At the same time most women would want to stab Benedict Wall to death with a stick of organic celery to shut him up whenever he benignly murmurs “okay” to a justifiably furious Becky.
Jamie Oxenbould also carries out a death-defying high wire act as the doofus tragic plumber whose timing in life is reminiscent of a clock with a rapidly dying battery. And finally, there are two delicious supporting acts in Sophie Gregg as Becky’s neighbour Jenny: she can neither shut up nor intuit when she ought to go home and the laughter she provokes is all the better for eventually being revealed as deep sadness. And Kate Bookalill’s late appearance as Oliver’s wife Alice is electrifying: her antennae for detecting what’s going on are almost visible and audible as she crackles into the action.
The Village Bike is an interesting play that probably has a slightly higher opinion of itself than it deserves. It’s way too long for its own good but this production is superb and together with the performances as detailed above, it’s lifted to a place of Really Recommended.