Young British writer Penelope Skinner's dark comedy about sex addiction is funny – but ultimately punishing
There’s a heatwave in the English countryside and Becky (Gabrielle Scawthorn), a newly-pregnant schoolteacher, is finally on holiday. She’s trying to look forward to the new lifestyle that awaits her as a fresh transplant from the city and as a mother to be. She buys a bike; there are paint swatches on the wall.
Small problem: she wants to have sex. Her husband John (Benedict Wall) does not. In fact, he so emphatically does not that Becky thinks she must be ugly now (you know, because of the baby), but it turns out that instead he doesn’t want to hurt the baby, and no amount of convincing can change his mind. He’s more focused on the domestic: reading baby books, restricting Becky’s diet, shopping organically and ethically.
But Becky has needs. A plumber (Jamie Oxenbould) stares at her and she regains some confidence, and then in with the bike comes Oliver Hardcastle (really), a neighbour whose specialty is having affairs. It isn’t long until Becky is building a fantasy sex life with Oliver (Rupert Reid) on the down-low, spinning a web of lies as she dutifully works through his sexual bucket list.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that things do not go well for our heroine, who is stuck right at the crossroads of the Madonna/Whore complex; her husband unreasonably expects her to be the former so she seeks to be the latter, but of course that’s not really rewarding either – both positions deny her humanity or an equal exchange of respect with the men around her. She’s shamed, ridiculed and abused in myriad ways by these men, for daring to want sex and to say it aloud. By the time you add Jenny (Sophie Gregg), a stressed mother who lives nearby, the play might as well be subtitled ‘P.S. A Woman’s Sexuality Is Her Prison’.
Director Rachel Chant is all too aware of this and she, along with Scawthorn and her detailed, irresistible performance, keeps trying to wrestle the play’s inner momentum back into Becky’s hands, rather than letting her be buffeted from one man, and one disappointment, to another. But that’s how things are for some women, isn’t it? This happens all the time – women dare demonstrate sexuality and their lives fall apart. It’s ultimately what the play, for all its attempts to rise above the archetype, does to Becky.
Scawthorn is perfectly cast here because, much like Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she brings great, lovable, highly comic compassion to a woman who voices her desires and is consequently considered ‘hormonal’ and ‘hysterical’. It’s hard to look away from her; she’s the brightest thing onstage.
Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt’s set is a charming multi-layered home, giving refreshing height to the Old Fitz playing space; Hartley TA Kemp’s lighting gives it depth, and Nate Edmondson’s music suggests an English comedy of manners, from which form The Village Bike is at least partially drawn. It’s a pleasant and welcoming kind of atmosphere, which stops the play from ever being completely bleak.
Penelope Skinner’s script hints constantly at the promise of liberation for Becky, whether it be in her affair, or her marriage, or within her own sexuality; but that liberation never comes, and each time she is hit with a dose of misogyny or mansplaining, it’s difficult not to wince. Many will find the play funny; few, I suspect, will find its insights fresh. And in the absence of insight, it feels like a peculiarly punishing experience: watching a woman trying to be herself and suffering for it, reined in by old-fashioned morality like millions of women before her.