Oh, I loved this revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse – it’s a terrific production of a truly wonderful play.
This play stars Olivia Poulet as Li’l Bit, a woman, now approaching 40, reminiscing about the years of grooming and abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of her Uncle Peck (William Ellis). Without bitterness or regret, Li’l Bit looks back at her experiences, both at the hands of her uncle and at the repercussions it had on her life.
Given the subject matter, there is an extraordinary blend of warmth and humour interwoven into this play alongside the tragedy of this girl’s abuse. But there’s also a powerful sense of nostalgia and innocence lost as Director Jack Sain mirrors Li’l Bet’s corrupted coming-of-age with that for America too.
The romantic rural Maryland of Li’l Bet’s childhood, with its small town communities and inward looking attitudes is about to be blown apart. It’s the 1950s and everything is changing. Rock & Roll has arrived. The kids have no experience of war and are rejecting the prim, stuffy attitudes of their families and are rebelling.
That sense of a country on the cusp is wonderfully brought out in a set that is filled with Americana – flashing neon lights surround the tyre swings, and the only thing that interests Li’l Bet in her Uncle Peck’s pick-up truck is the new music on the radio and the pressing of the pedal to the floor so she can get out of town – and away from her Uncle’s wandering hands.
But just as much as this play is about innocence lost, it is also a study of attitudes – the blind eye turned by those who should have been protecting Li’l Bit, the excuses made for Uncle Peck’s behaviour and the complete absconding of any responsibility by every adult in the piece. I wish you could say times have changed but there’s such a tragedy in this play’s contemporary resonance.
The play was written by Paula Vogel and its blend of themes and superb dialogue is terrific. But whilst it’s hard to go wrong with writing this good there are some great elements to this production which really make it shine.
At its heart are two superb performances from Olivia Poulet and William Ellis who bring such depth to their roles. Olivia’s wonderful blend of resilience and self-awareness gives her Li’l Bet real spirit whereas William’s portrayal of an abuser is completely lacking in any kind of cliché. And together, their constantly evolving power dynamic is fascinating to observe.
They are supported by an excellent chorus comprised of Bryony Corrigan, Holly Hayes and Joshua Miles who are terrific in their various roles as mother, aunt, grandad, lovers and high school friends – and their talent and versatility in moving swiftly from comic scenes to those of bullying, to dancing and singing, give the show real energy.
I could watch this show again and again. There’s something incredibly beautiful and life-affirming in this tale of a woman overcoming, or simply facing head-on, what she has been running from her whole life.
Southwark Playhouse, London to March 14, 2015
1. William Ellis, Olivia Poulet. Photo by Jack Sain.
2. William Ellis, Olivia Poulet. Photo by Jack Sain.
3. Olivia Poulet, Joshua Miles. Photo by Jack Sain.
4. Bryony Corrigan. Photo by Jack Sain.