Becky’s pregnant and frustrated. But her husband is more interested in the baby manual than her new underwear so she turns to the porn stash under the bed. As the summer heats up, a brief encounter sends her speeding downhill towards reckless abandon.
A provocative and darkly comic look at fantasy and romance.
The Village Bike is the Royal Court debut from Penelope Skinner. Also a graduate from the Royal Court’s writing programmes, her credits elsewhere includes a collaboration with Moira Buffini, Matt Charman and Jack Thorne on Greenland at the National Theatre, Eigengrau at the Bush Theatre, Scarlet’s Circus for Hampstead Theatre’s Heat & Light Group and Fucked, at the Old Red Lion in 2008 and at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival.
Joe Hill-Gibbins directs. At the Royal Court, his credits include The Girlfriend Experience, The Family Plays, Bliss, and A Girl In A Car With A Man. He is Deputy Artistic Director of the Young Vic Theatre, where has directed The Glass Menagerie, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Respectable Wedding.
Age Restriction 18+.
Contains strong sexual content. No younger patrons will be admitted.
Running time 2hrs 30mins approx, including one interval
The Village Bike is part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.
£10 Monday tickets are available on the day of perf from 9am online, 10am in-person.
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Dates in June
|Fri 24 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 25 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Mon 27 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 28 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 29 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 30 Jun 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
Dates in July
|Fri 1 Jul 2011||7:00pm||Press Night||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 2 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Mon 4 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 5 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 6 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 7 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 7 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Fri 8 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
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|Sat 9 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Mon 11 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 12 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Post-Show Talk||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 13 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 14 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 14 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Fri 15 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 16 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 16 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Mon 18 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 19 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 20 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 21 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 21 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Fri 22 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 23 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 23 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Mon 25 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 26 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 27 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 28 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 28 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Fri 29 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 30 Jul 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 30 Jul 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
Dates in August
|Mon 1 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Tue 2 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Wed 3 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 4 Aug 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Thu 4 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Fri 5 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 6 Aug 2011||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
|Sat 6 Aug 2011||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||Ages 18+ Only|
Sold out Performances
Mondays all seats £10 (available on the day of perf from 9am online, 10am in-person.)
Concessions £15 (avail. in advance until 21 May 2011 incl. and all mats. For all other perfs, avail. on a standby basis on the day)
School and HE Groups of 8+ £10 (avail. Tue–Fri and mats)
Access £12 (plus a companion at the same rate)
Matt Wolf, The New York Times, 12th July 2011
One’s not midway through The Village Bike, the wonderful new play from Penelope Skinner in the Royal Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs, before a particular phrase comes ringingly to mind: It’s about time.
What is, you ask? Let’s just say a cultural artefact that examines sexual need and desire from the woman’s point of view. Time and again, we get the male take on these very realms, not least via the concurrent West End revivals of “Betrayal” and “Butley,” two plays from the 1970s that busy themselves with anatomizing the eternal erotic itch as expressed by the guys. But here is Ms. Skinner putting center-stage a not yet visibly pregnant wife, Becky (Romola Garai), who loves porn and sex, and is so eager in every sense of the word that the smart play’s apt title is no accident.
Much of the fascination comes from the way The Village Bike upends expectation. Becky’s devouring sexuality exists in inverse relationship to a husband, John (Nicholas Burns), who thinks only of his as-yet-unborn baby and being eco-friendly when it comes to plastic bags. Mr. Burns encapsulates an entire being in his delivery of the word “yeesh.”
Where, then, does this leave our English teacher heroine who is determined to do something about their newfound village dwelling’s audibly rattling pipes? (The local plumber, keenly played by Phil Cornwell, prefers to think of them as “sweaty.”) Becky risks being made a fool of, or worse, in the hothouse that is country life, not least once she strikes up a liaison with the vendor of her bike, played by Dominic Rowan with a charisma that grows more chilling as the play proceeds.
The director, Joe Hill-Gibbins, keeps the numerous possibilities for innuendo gratefully in check, “the bedroom thing” in John’s synoptic view of events widening in meaning to accommodate a loneliness that is never more acute than within a relationship. The play, by turns trenchantly funny yet also bleak, has already been extended twice at the Court; this bicycle’s path, one feels, has only just begun.
Susannah Clapp, The Observer, Sunday 10th July 2011
Helen Goddard’s design – realistic but deeply gynae – reflects an ovarian revolution. Penelope Skinner takes a man and a woman, one broody, one raunchy, loads her script with double entendres (the title is one of them), and makes this funny by reversing the trad male-female positions. In The Village Bike, it’s the girl who is randy; the boy who would rather have a baby than sex. He is a new green man (“care is all I ever do”); she stashes away plastic bags from Tesco – one of her filthiest secrets. She is Romola Garai – wild-eyed, arresting and so unguarded she makes you feel you’re touching her skin; he is Nicholas Burns, who gives his worthiness just the right amount of po-faced puddingyness.
In an immaculate cast, Alexandra Gilbreath is also extraordinary as the bustling, distraught neighbour who is a physical and verbal windmill. But it is the director Joe Hill-Gibbins who makes the evening fly, orchestrating sometimes heavily nudge-wink dialogue so that it has a light naturalness, weaving action across the stage and, in one fine moment, sending the heroine wheeling away on the bike (it’s a “sit-up-and-beg” model, which itself comes to seem fairly smutty) in front of a video of verdant countryside: she’s most free when surrounded by a virtual world. Hill-Gibbins is 33: he has made Brecht look lithe (A Respectable Wedding), and vivaciously realised Alecky Blythe’s study of a brothel (The Girlfriend Experience). Now he vividly punctuates a new play, making every possible moment tell. He should be acclaimed: he is one of our best young directors.
Marika Lysandrou, The Morning Star, Sunday 10th July 2011
Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, set “in a village somewhere in Middle England,” creates an archetype of bucolic dysfunction.
That’s especially evident in the figure of protagonist Becky (Romola Garai). Pregnant and horny, she’s dissatisfied since husband John(Nicholas Burns) won’t get it up for fear of damaging the baby.
Increasingly frustrated with his lack of libido and his baby-talk, Becky finds satisfaction elsewhere – first in porn, then in a steamy affair with bike dealer Oliver (Dominic Rowan).
Skinner is right on the money in her depiction of women’s needs for love, reassurance and unbridled sexual fulfillment – and the unlikelihood of finding these qualities in one man – which she couples with the disintegrating relationship between husband and wife.
Garai’s Becky is on edge from the word go and her jitteriness escalates as the sexual tension mounts.
Ultimately she goes over the brink and breaks the “deal” she has with Oliver.
Garai tellingly conveys her character’s vulnerability when faced with her lover’s threat of exposure: “They’ll say silly fucking bitch. Stupid slag. She got what she deserved.”
In a play which switches effortlessly between the comic and such bleak moments of realisation, Alexandra Gilbreath plays Becky’s quintessentially middle-class neighbourJenny with razor-sharp accuracy and perfect comic timing.
An interfering gossip, she’s pivotal in conveying the aspects of village life which Becky finds both suffocating and a life support.
Under Dominic Rowan’s direction, this is a funny, daring production which confirms Skinner as a young playwright to watch. 4 stars Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 5th July 2011
Expectant mums and their partners – and anyone living in, or contemplating a move to, the countryside be warned: Penelope Skinner’s new play, which has seen her win the 2011 George Devine Award, is mercilessly funny – and savagely insightful – about the alarming shifts in emotional and sexual gear that can happen when adult worlds contract to cot- and cottage-sized dimensions.
All is not well chez Becky and John. The pipes in their old bakery home keep banging violently without warning – as if umbilically linked to the blocked passions that have turned the couple’s bedroom into the polar opposite of a love-nest. In a neat inversion of gender stereotypes, it’s John, an earnest, eco-obsessive commercials director, who keeps rolling over and going to sleep in the sack.
Becky, resentful of her bump, is getting the hump for lack of a jump. Heedless of her pregnancy, this pretty English teacher develops an insatiable appetite for her husband’s DVD porn collection and then for a bit of rough up the road who has sold her his wife’s bike.
As the punning title suggests, the play wants it both ways, straight and saucily satirical. Double entendres tramp through the script with all the subtlety of a herd of cows at the milking hour. At the same time, Skinner is exploring complex matters of the heart: marital dysfunction, betrayal, sex-addiction and that distressing “no-woman’s-land’ where everything becomes about “baby”. Occasionally she lays on the comedy to distracting excess – the involvement of a biddable local plumber called Mike, for instance, enjoyably sends up cliched porn-video scenarios but it carries too strong a whiff of contrivance’s dead hand.
In general, though, the writing is so fresh and assured, and the performances so nicely fleshed out in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, that you can forgive the odd credibility wobble and admire instead the way Skinner freewheels across the confused, sometimes mucky terrain of the way we live and breed now.
Romola Garai is terrific as the mother-to-be who refuses to take her encroaching responsibilities lying down, and builds a mounting sense of desperation and depravity. Nicholas Burns is perfect as her wet-drip husband, as is Alexandra Gilbreath as the local busy-body, her own domestic frustrations lurking behind a facade of insistent middle-class politeness. And Dominic Rowan brings his customary rugged appeal to bear as the smouldering love-interest who indulges Becky’s increasingly far-fetched fantasies but struggles to pull out before it’s too late. Another little smasher, then, from the Royal Court. 4 stars Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times, Tuesday 5th July 2011
Young couple Becky and John have moved to a cottage in the country to await the birth of their child and become, as Becky puts it, a bit more “rustic”. But the looked-for pastoral idyll seems to elude them. For a start the plumbing in their new home seems dodgy, making a fearful knocking sound at crucial moments. And while John embraces impending fatherhood, Becky struggles with her role in the nesting scenario. It’s clear that all is not well between them, particularly in what one might coyly call the “bedroom department”, when Becky sidles up to John in a skimpy negligee and he embarks on a speech about ethical shopping.
Penelope Skinner’s deliberately un-pastoral comedy follows other plays, such as Cock, at the Royal Court in its frank examination of sexuality and identity and the way the two overlap. John is confused by his protective feelings towards Becky and refuses to sleep with her; she feels rejected, frustrated and trapped. She turns first to John’s now disused porn DVDs and then to sordid encounters with Oliver Hardcastle, the local Lothario, to answer her needs.
Skinner’s play is full of innuendos (the title being just one of them), as it brings a mischievous, light-hearted approach to a serious subject. Becky’s fixation with fantasy sex is contrasted wittily, but painfully, with reality, as the scenarios the films depict are replicated embarrassingly in real life: the plumber drops in to fix the pipes, for example, as she lurks, scantily clad, in the kitchen.
It is delivered with plenty of topspin by Joe Hill-Gibbins, in an entertaining production that revels in erotic clichés. But while often funny, the play also depicts six different sorts of loneliness, with each of the characters struggling to balance life, lust and love.
Nicholas Burns makes us feel for the well-meaning but infuriating John, who rages at Becky for shopping at Tesco but turns a blind eye to her frantic desires. Dominic Rowan, as the randy Oliver, segues from sexiness to seediness before our eyes and Romola Garai gives a wonderfully intense performance as Becky: assertive, vulnerable and panic-struck by turns.
Skinner tidies the crisis up a bit too neatly, but still this is a daring play about sex and the confusing impact of pornography on intimacy. It’s also quite an eye-opener for anyone who fondly imagines that all English teachers spend their summer holidays poring over hefty novels. 4 stars Claire Allfree, Metro, 5th July 2011
The Royal Court has harvested a strong crop of female talent in recent years, although no playwright has put women themselves centre stage with such bravado as Penelope Skinner.
New in the village, English teacher Becky is about three months pregnant, yet while her husband, John, is buying mobiles and reading baby manuals, Becky craves vodka, fags – and sex. Once a porn aficionado, John is now obsessed with organic shopping and the washing up, leaving a frustrated Becky to seek out the company of a member of the village am-dram society, Oliver, followed by the local plumber. Like porn itself, there is a knowingly absurd strain to many of these encounters – as well as an accumulating emptiness, as Becky becomes increasingly desperate to retain some hold of herself as a sexually assertive woman rather than succumb to the passive version of herself offered by her controllingly paternalistic husband, whose solution to her restlessness is to give her a foot massage.
Romola Garai is superb as Becky, twisting back and forth between sexual need, emotional confusion and radiant abandon, as well as suggesting the self-delusion of a woman who – through her hard-core encounter with the ugly, chauvinistic Oliver – has inadvertently cast herself as another man’s plaything.
Skinner exposes further the fecund seam of female frustration – Alexandra Gilbreath is excellent as the clucky, interfering neighbour privately driven mad by her two children and perennially absent husband – while sex itself becomes the faceless grunts and cries of the porn film intermittently sound-tracked throughout Joe Hill Gibbins’s lively, bleak and at times deliberately excruciating production. 4 stars Fiona Mountford, The Evening Standard, Monday 4th July 2011
It’s another runaway hit for the super in-form Royal Court, but if you haven’t already booked your ride on The Village Bike, it’s too late.
Extended and sold out before opening night, this blackly comic probe into sex within marriage proves once again, after the glory that was Anya Reiss’s The Acid Test, that the Theatre Upstairs plus an emerging female playwright is a winning combination.
Penelope Skinner, like Reiss a graduate of the Court’s Young Writers’ programmes, turns her scalpel-sharp focus to a materially comfortable union between early thirty-somethings Becky (the ever-engaging Romola Garai) and John (Nicholas Burns). They’ve just moved to the country, to a cottage ripe with “development potential” and Becky is newly pregnant with their first child.
It’s a very modern marriage, all organic lasagne and porn DVDs under the bed, but the trouble is that John is more interested in fatherhood workshops than Becky’s slinky lingerie. On edge and turned on, Becky starts, dangerously, to look elsewhere for sex.
This play brilliantly captures what few dramas even bother to deal with: that liminal time in a woman’s life when she stands poised between two very different states of being.
Becky is desperate for sex – and there’s a lovely early scene when every innocuous line comes freighted with x-rated undertones – but more than that, she’s desperate for herself to be judged for who she is rather than the new life she’s growing inside her.
Garai leads us skilfully through Becky’s increasingly frazzled mental states, as smooth rides on her new bicycle segue swiftly into bumpy rides on its vendor Oliver (a gloriously abrasive turn from Dominic Rowan).
Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production is effortlessly compelling and if there were a ticket left, I’d urge you to buy it. It pays to plan ahead at the Court these days. 4 stars Sam Marlowe, The Times, 4th July 2011
Becky has a new bike with sit-up-and-beg handlebars. She bowls along summer country lanes to meet her secret lover for all manner of kinky role-play. At home, she’s the newly pregnant, English teacher wife of John, a well-meaning eco-fascist. There’s a long list of things that John disapproves of: Tesco, Becky’s bike, and — while she’s carrying his baby — sex. So the only thing banging in their converted barn is the faulty pipework.
But, back in the saddle she escapes his strictures, her respectable job and her imminent motherhood. Where’s the harm? The affair’s all on her own terms. Or is it? Penelope Skinner’s new play is a hurtling ride through gender politics, sexual powerplay and the highs and hazards of desire. Its humour is impishly astute, its intelligence impeccable.
Skinner writes truthfully about carnal appetite; she is also merciless in administering the post-coital cold shower in the shape of the price that women pay for sensual abandonment. And Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, with a superb leading performance from Romola Garai, is racy, reckless and heart-rending.
Garai’s Becky, fobbed off with a cup of Horlicks when she asks Nicholas Burns’s John for cunnilingus, is tempted at the first sight of Oliver Hardcastle (Dominic Rowan), the middle-aged village bad boy. His very name — a sly reference to Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, with its romantic intrigues — sounds dashing; and he arrives, carrying the bike that he sells her, fresh from am-dram rehearsals in a highwayman’s costume. John thinks that he “rescued” Becky from her former life; now she wants to be ravished. And she is, regularly — until Oliver’s wife returns, and Becky finds herself brutally cast off and horribly vulnerable.
Drawing on the clichés of pornography and romance, Skinner brilliantly pinpoints the way in which in our highly sexualised society desirability can define identity. She’s sharp-eyed, too, on loneliness and desperation: Alexandra Gilbreath, as a neighbour with the hots for John, turns out to be far from the unflappable yummy mummy that she appears; and when Becky resorts to desultory sex with the plumber (a poignantly pathetic Phil Cornwell) the aftermath is misery. The conclusion doesn’t quite convince — it’s as if Skinner ran out of pedal power. But this is a wickedly wise, furiously funny play that freewheels among the mess and indignities behind the many myths about sex. 3 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Monday 4th July 2011
As she proved in Eigengrau at the Bush, Penelope Skinner is preoccupied by sex. She writes about it with a candour that is both entertaining and fiercely erotic. But, having explored the wilder shores of desire, her new play retreats into romantic convention. It takes you on an enjoyable ride to a predictable destination.
The suggestive title ostensibly refers to the secondhand bike that Becky, a pregnant, married schoolteacher, buys to explore the countryside round the family cottage. Becky’s dilemma, however, is that she is avid for sex, while her husband, John, is monastically fixated on baby manuals and ethical shopping. When Oliver, the local Lothario who sold her the bike, pops in to do some repairs, Becky starts to turn her fantasies into reality.
Skinner writes wittily and well about women. She overturns all the stereotypes about staid schoolteachers and expectant mums, and creates in Becky a living, breathing, highly passionate woman. I enjoyed Becky’s encounter with a plumber whose initial, po-faced announcement that she’s got “sweaty pipes” leads to a ripple of innuendo worthy of a Carry On movie. But, while Skinner’s play is both observant and funny, it has a strangely conventional core. Its point is that many women crave both sexual fantasy and marital stability.
It’s well worth seeing, however, especially for Romola Garai’s richly uninhibited performance as Becky: she’s never off stage and offers a mesmerising mix of emotional confusion and animalistic high spirits. Alexandra Gilbreath is also spot-on as her antithesis, the mumsy Jenny, whose coping capability conceals a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Dominic Rowan is all cold-hearted, cocksure swagger as the lover who fills the gap in Becky’s life. Directed with great assurance by Joe Hill-Gibbins, it’s a play that gives you a good night out without quite having the courage of its initial convictions.
Alex Sierks, The Stage, Monday 4th July 2011
Penelope Skinner is a graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme and in this new play, her debut at this new-writing powerhouse, she fully delivers on the promise that was so evident in her previous work, which includes Eigengrau and Fucked. Once again, she has chosen to tell a story that mixes sexual misery with wild hilarity.
The central character is Becky (Romola Garai). She is pregnant and her quiet rural existence is disturbed when John, her husband, becomes unwilling to have sex with her. At first, she raids his stash of porn DVDs. But pretty soon, in desperation, she begins to respond to Mike, the local plumber, and to Oliver, who acts in the local drama group and comes to her house to sell her an old bicycle.
Often hilarious, sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing, Skinner’s writing is both highly observant and wickedly entertaining. Her incidental portrait of Becky’s neighbour Jenny, for example, is sympathetic and satirical at the same time. As the title suggests, the play is full of puns and double meanings. Quietly, Skinner introduces the play’s themes of the discord between fantasy and reality, the domestication of porn, and the roller coaster of sexual desire.
Intelligently directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, on Helen Goddard’s fine set, the play is dominated by Garai’s Becky, whose every mood swing is legible and convincing. Equally good are Nicholas Burns as the overprotective John and Dominic Rowan as the sexually aggressive Oliver. Alexandra Gilbreath is entertaining as Jenny, while Phil Cornwell as Mike the plumber and Sasha Waddell as Oliver’s wife make up the rest of the cast. The result is an excellent piece of new writing and an evening that rings with emotional truth. 4 stars Stewart Pringle, Exeunt, 2nd July 2011
Penelope Skinner’s latest play is, at heart, a sex farce. It begins like a gender-reversed Seven Year Itch, complete with a stifling heat wave and kettles which simmer in sympathy with boiling desires, yet by the conclusion Skinner has created a portrait of sexual instability which is as convincingly real as it is unsettling.
Becky (Romola Garai) is happy with her marriage and ambivalent about her pregnancy, and thrown into chaos by her suddenly raging libido and her husband’s total refusal to satisfy it. Against the backdrop of a middle-class existence in a sleepy Home Counties village she turns first to pornography and then to local lotharios to quell her urges, with consequences which throw doubts upon everything she has excluded from her outwardly perfect life.
Garai is incredible in the central role, mapping Becky’s descent from sparky, glowing intelligence to an incomprehensible hunger in perfect, subtle steps. Likewise, her relationship with her appallingly caring husband John (a perfectly cast Nicholas Burns) is brilliantly observed. The world of organic butchers and canvas bags which John inhabits has never felt more cloying nor more true. Similarly, Alexandra Gilbreath’s performance of village bore Jenny is masterfully irritating. The stifling country escape of thatched cottages and sprawling barn conversions creates a thrillingly inappropriate backdrop to Becky’s late night masturbation and the script’s knowingly kitsch double entendres. Skinner has taken the skill for incisive observations of modern sexuality which she displayed to considerable effect in Fucked and developed it into a masterful indictment of gender hypocrisy. The scene in which Becky squirmingly negotiates Jenny’s assumption that it is John’s overactive sex drive which is causing their marital breakdown, an acceptable problem for a middle-class couple to experience, is exquisitely horrid.
Perhaps because of the emotional gulf between the broad comedy with which it opens and the subsequent unfolding horror, there are occasional incongruous moments and an unfortunate sag towards the middle, but taken as a whole The Village Bike is terrific. Design elements, from the use of poor-man’s-process to David McSeveney’s witty sound design, which swings from cod-classical overture to pornstar orgasms, are perfectly judged.
On one level Skinner has reached into the darker territories of sexual fantasy and power relations, yet on another she has found something far more original. The baby chairs, pregnancy manuals and tinkling bedtime mobiles which Becky is assaulted with become gradually monstrous against her imprecations of individuality. Maternity is placed in stark opposition to personal autonomy, and though there is little strength in Becky’s flings, they sound out like desperate shrieks from the prison of imminent motherhood. There are other threads here too, including discomfiting allusions to the Foucauldian hysterical woman, the woman brutalised by her own excessive sexual yearnings.
Aleks Sierz, The Arts Desk, Saturday 2nd July 2011
For a couple of years now British theatre has been harvesting a new crop of young female talent. Market leaders such as Lucy Prebble (Enron) and Polly Stenham (That Face) have made a splash in the West End, and where they led many others have followed. Earlier this week, Lou Ramsden’s excellent horror story, Hundreds and Thousands, premiered at the Soho Theatre. And last night Penelope Skinner’s superb new play, which stars Romola Garai, opened at the Royal Court Theatre.
Becky (excellently played by Garai) is pregnant. According to John, her husband, she is therefore hormonal, and a bit weird. Actually, she just wants to have sex, occasionally at least. But he doesn’t feel like it at all. He’s more interested in reading books about babies. During a summer heatwave, her frustration rises with every leap of the thermometer. At first, she has recourse to his stash of porn DVDs. Then she starts making eyes at Mike, the plumber, and at Oliver, who sells her a second-hand bike.
Set in a village of renovated cottages, this anti-pastoral is a feast of puns and double meanings. The bicycle of the title, of course, refers to any local slut and, after Becky watches some porn, the arrival of the plumber results in a cascade of double entendres, which have the effect of being both quietly joyful and emotionally desperate. As well as puns, there is also a strong metaphoric content in the play’s vision of contemporary Britain, a place of emotional aridity and sexual extravagance. In this metaphoric landscape, the deftly drawn Becky – who combines a desire for sexual adventure with a consciousness of stunted feelings – quickly inspires sympathy. By contrast, her husband is a bit of a prat and Jenny, her neighbour, too nice by half.
As in her previous play, Eigengrau, Skinner excels at mixing belly laughs with excruciating embarrassment (there are several explicit moments guaranteed to make you cringe). And few other playwrights understand the sadness of sex (in one brief scene Becky masturbates joylessly) as well as the power of desire. But while the story – which pedals towards its frightening climax with a good mixture of uphill heave and downhill rush – is as clear as a summer’s day, occasionally the sky darkens with the clouds of larger themes.
The contrast between porn (with its enthusiastic but fake couplings) and reality (with its unfulfilled longings and sexual misery) suggests a larger concern with the power of images in our society, and Jenny’s advice carries a distant echo of the wisdom of the agony aunt. The clash between fantasy and everyday existence – Oliver arrives on stage from an amdram rehearsal in a highwayman’s outfit – goes through the play like a drop of sweat running down the back of his broad back.
As a comedy of manners, The Village Bike is acutely observed and often hilarious, and its themes of sexual bravado, domestication of porn and the power of body image blend into a story of surreptitious pleasure and gnawing guilt. At its centre is Garai, now sulky grey, then radiantly sunny, and completely convincing whether she is begging for sex or expressing other needs. Similarly, Nicholas Burns’s overprotective John is suitably annoying, while Dominic Rowan’s sultry Oliver oozes sexuality. Alexandra Gilbreath’s Jenny and Phil Cornwell’s Mike round out the cast, and Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production is bright and intelligent. All in all, it’s a great ride.
Fri 24 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 25 Jun, 7:45pm Tue 28 Jun, 7:45pm Wed 29 Jun, 7:45pm Thu 30 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 2 Jul, 7:45pm Sat 9 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 14 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 16 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 21 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 23 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 28 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 30 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 4 Aug, 3:30pm Sat 6 Aug, 3:30pm
Fri 24 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 25 Jun, 7:45pm Mon 27 Jun, 7:45pm Tue 28 Jun, 7:45pm Wed 29 Jun, 7:45pm Thu 30 Jun, 7:45pm
Fri 1 Jul, 7:00pm
Sat 9 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 16 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 23 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 30 Jul, 3:30pm Sat 6 Aug, 3:30pm
Tue 12 Jul, 7:45pm
Thu 14 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 21 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 28 Jul, 3:30pm Thu 4 Aug, 3:30pm
Tue 19 Jul, 7:45pm