Saying Paula Vogel can write well is on a par with saying Kanye West is quite fond of himself. Her astonishing 1997 play ‘How I Learned to Drive’ brims with a real, raw poetry and treats the harrowing subject of child abuse with an audacious lightness of touch. It is very funny and horribly upsetting, and you can absolutely see why it won Vogel a Pulitzer Prize.
It’s a play that people should see, basically. Even more so in the wake of the Savile scandal, which is presumably part of the reason that the savvy Southwark Playhouse has programmed this timely revival starring an excellent Olivia Poulet as the heroine Li’l Bit.
Jumping back and forth in time, Li’l Bit narrates the tale of her childhood in rural Maryland, about her family’s genitalia-inspired nicknames (‘When she was born, we looked down and there was just a little bit’) and how her grandfather liked to dismiss her dreams of going to college in favour of study in between the sheets. Amid this sexually dysfunctional environment Li’l Bit begins to reveal snippets about her relationship with her Uncle Peck. He’s a seemingly benign, thoughtful and intelligent war veteran, who married Li’l Bit’s aunt (so not technically a blood relation), and the 17-year-old Li’l Bit allows him to touch her during their driving lessons together.
Except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, and as Li’l Bit – telling us the story as a 40-year-old – goes further and further back, what unravels is a complicated tale of ignorance, familial neglect, exploitation and power.
‘How I Learned to Drive’ is clearly not all sweetness and light. But it’s not the sort of night that will plunge you into despair, either. There’s oodles of humour, brought out in Jack Sain’s great, well-paced production by the panto-like depictions of Li’l Bit’s family. Poulet gives Li’l Bit a gravelly, world-weary voice and a hard, controlling veneer. For a long time she thinks, as we do, that she is calling the shots. The hope lies in the fact that by telling us what happened, she sort of is.
It’s a difficult story to listen to, but surely if theatre is there for anything, it’s to make sure we hear exactly these sorts of stories.