Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Theatre review: How I Learned to Drive

Nostalgia with a markedly sinister edge at Southwark Playhouse's Little, with Jack Sain's production of Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer-winner, How I Learned to Drive. As she approaches 40, Li'l Bit (Future Dame Olivia Poulet) reminisces about her teenage years in the 1960s, and in particular her relationship with her uncle, Peck (William Ellis.) He did indeed teach her to drive, but from the first time we meet them it's clear that's not all that happened in his car - and if he'd had his way even more would probably have gone on. Li'l Bit initially flashes back to 1969, when she was 17 and preparing to take her driving test. But her narration then takes us back and forward in time, jumping through memories as they come to her, and building up a picture of how her adolescence formed who she is today.

Bryony Corrigan, Holly Hayes and Joshua Miles form a white face-painted chorus who take on all the other roles, most importantly those of Li'l Bit's family, whose complicity in what happens we also start to see.

How I Learned to Drive is in many ways a classic American coming-of-age story; the setting around cars (which Uncle Peck describes as a boy's first love) and on the highways of Maryland gives it a sense of Americana that's exaggerated in Katharine Heath's design, all neon signs and leather seats in diner booths. The effect is to highlight the fact that we're seeing a girl's sexual awakening in a style that's stereotypically associated with a boy's.

On the surface this seems a rather traditional story to have won the Pulitzer, but Vogel's play is very cleverly written, and Sain's production handles it sensitively: At its heart is a really creepy relationship, and a family environment that offers mixed messages about sex, with a grandfather (Miles) whose every comment to his granddaughter seems to be smutty, but a mother and grandmother (Hayes and Corrigan) undecided on how much Li'l Bit should know about the birds and the bees. Yet How I Learned to Drive somehow manages to hold onto its folksy charm and humour, even while undercutting it with the subject matter.

There's good work all round from the cast, with the chorus providing much of the play's comedy and keeping it from becoming too dark. But It's Poulet's show and a beautifully restrained performance. With her playing a character from the ages of 11 to 40, and the action jumping around in a way that's never predictable, what struck me the most is how little she does to differentiate the character's age and maturity between scenes. It's always immediately clear just from the look on her face where in the story we are at any given time, but she never oversells it. An impressive performance in an intriguing play.

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel is booking until the 14th of March at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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