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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Village Bike
Royal Court Theatre    Summer 2011

Note: I saw an early preview, five performances before press night, and there may have been small changes afterwards

Penelope Skinner's play has a strong premise and some well-written comic and serious scenes. Whether they hang together enough for a successful play is another question. 

Because her husband, awed by her new pregnancy, refuses to sleep with her, the sex-starved woman turns for solace to his porn video collection. But that has the comic effect of making every innocent encounter with men seem awash in double-entendres, while the friend she turns to for counsel assumes she's trying to say she's gone off sex.

She finally gives in to the temptation to an uninhibited, uninvolved, just-for-the-fun-of-it sexual affair, only to discover, of course, that there is no such thing, and her neediness threatens reputations, marriages and her own emotional health. 

That story could be played for anything from bawdy farce to pathos, and one problem with Skinner's play is that she doesn't seem able to decide on a tone. 

The double-entendre scenes and encounters with the chatterbox neighbour are TV sitcom stuff, the scenes with her husband and lover make half-hearted attempts to raise serious questions about female sexuality, and the ending is played for pathos.

So the audience is too often unsure how to react to each scene or plot development, and thus always a beat behind and not fully in the moment. 

This wavering emotional core is reflected in a shifting focus that leaves too many plot or structural loose ends. 

The titular bicycle is really just there for the sexual joke, and is quickly all-but-forgotten. The neighbour is more of a plot device than a character, there to interrupt comically whenever Skinner has to get out of a scene, and she isn't real enough for us to be able to care when she also turns pathetic at the end. 

And making the husband an ecology nut, on the level of getting angry at supermarket plastic bags, seems left over from earlier draft in which it might have had some relevance.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins gets the most out of his actors in each individual scene, hoping that will carry the play over the leaps in tone and focus.

Romola Garai is at her best when her character is comic, finding the sweetness in her confusion when everything around her seems tinged with sex, though she has trouble carrying the character and us into the realm of desperation and despair. 

Alexandra Gilbreath offers an extended comic cameo as the chatterbox neighbour almost determined to misinterpret everything she sees and hears. Dominic Rowan plays the lover as a cool chancer, happily taking what's on offer and annoyed when things threaten to get messy, but Nicholas Burns is unable to make the husband feel like he's really part of this play. 

The weaknesses of this play are all of craft and technique, things that the young playwright can learn. The talent – the unmistakeable evidence that there is a real playwright here – is indisputable.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Village Bike - Royal Court 2011