★★½☆☆ An entertaining but ultimately anticlimactic exploration of female sexuality that gets lost in translation.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne
February 7, 2016

Sex sells, as the saying goes, and this is clearly a maxim that British firebrand-playwright Penelope Skinner has taken to heart. Her breakthrough play, Fucked, was a fastidious, feminist study of carnal desire, and her second big success, Eigengrau, also rooted around the complexities of sexual attraction and emotional manipulation. Her 2011 play, The Village Bike, follows in a similar vein, using sex as a catalyst for a provocative dissection of human interaction, this time focused on subverting antiquated expectations of female sexuality.

Becky (Ella Caldwell) is a married schoolteacher in the early stages of pregnancy. Recently relocated to the countryside with her husband, John (Richard Davies), she finds herself socially isolated and sexually frustrated. Her baby-brained spouse has become myopically fixated on her pregnancy, to the detriment of their sex life, and despite her persistent, porn-assisted advances, John is too focused on prenatal manuals and ethical produce to succumb to her increasingly desperate overtures. The cheeky double entendre of the title refers to a secondhand bike, bought by Becky in an attempt to grasp hold of some freedom in her new surroundings. However, when local philanderer Oliver (Matt Dyktynski), who sold her the bike, enters the frame, Becky is drawn into a world of reckless sexual abandon and infidelity.

The premise and its subtext are straightforward enough; Skinner draws this small cast of characters with an economical yet efficient level of detail, all in the service of challenging the old-fashioned myths about the fulfilment pregnant women should find in their imminent motherhood and the squeaky-clean respectability of school teachers. Useful subplots orbit this central quest for erotic gratification: a barely-coping neighbour, Jenny (Natasha Herbert), is pushed to the edge of a mental collapse by her children, and a clueless yet kinky plumber, Mike (Syd Brisbane), becomes a porn-pawn in Becky’s sexual games. These diversions amplify the message that behind closed doors all of us are hiding unflattering truths. 

Director Ngaire Dawn Fair has transplanted this play from the quaint rural communities of England to place it in an Australian context, but a lack of conviction highlights some abrasive inconsistencies. The affluence and uptight priggishness of the quintessential British village doesn’t quite tally with the Aussie equivalent, and aside from substituting a British supermarket brand for Coles, not much has been tweaked to try and wring a more Australian atmosphere from this text. It might not sound like such a big deal, but the ambiguity of the setting acts to derail some of the subtleties of these forensically observed and culturally specific characters. Natasha Herbert, as the sole Brit among the cast, delivers the most convincing account, pitching her portrayal of Jenny at just the right level of quiet anxiety, thinly veiled by polite, middle-class reserve.

The performances are well executed, but there are some missed opportunities for more carefully finessed moments that within the intimate space of the Red Stitch Actors Theatre would easily communicate. Caldwell has a lot to shoulder in the role of Becky, charting this character’s sexual misadventure from frustrated wife to emotionally confused nymphomaniac, and the course of this journey is somewhat uneven. The relationship between Becky and her husband, John, feels fragile from the off and consequently her eventual sexual lapse seems inevitable. There’s little to suggest that this marriage is anything other than dysfunctional and so the betrayal of Becky’s tryst with Oliver never feels all that dangerous.

Ironically, for a play about getting off, The Village Bike leaves a dissatisfying feeling of anticlimax. Becky’s affair holds no real consequences, the sexual stalemate in her relationship with John is left unresolved, and there’s little indication that Becky has taken anything away from the experience other than self-loathing. It’s a little bit funny at times, a little bit thought-provoking at times, and a little bit shocking at times, but largely this play fails to guide the audience toward any decisive emotional or intellectual realisation. There is much to enjoy in this production, but if Skinner’s intention is to scandalise an audience with the taboo of sex, what’s achieved here is something disappointingly inoffensive.

The Village Bike is at the Red Stitch Actors Theatre until March 5.

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