With the title “The Village Bike” and the headline presence of costume drama fave Romola Garai (“Atonement”), American auds might expect they’re in for a lovely tale about rural life and cycling. But they’re in for a shock from Penelope Skinner’s new comedy: The subject, you see, is sex. Lots and lots of sex. “Village bike” is Brit slang for “local slut,” and the play follows the downward spiral of newly pregnant teacher Becky (Garai) into an extramarital shagging bender after moving with her husband, John (Nicholas Burns), to a middle English hamlet.
Skinner isn’t afraid of big metaphors, and has the formal and comic chops to pull them off. The “sweaty pipes” in John and Becky’s house, which make increasingly cacophonous noises, stand in for their decaying marriage, while the second-hand bicycle she buys from local rake Oliver (Dominic Rowan) becomes a symbol for her sexual self-expression, not least because it transports her to Oliver’s house, where they embark in an increasingly risky affair.
Helen Goddard’s economical scenic design and Joe Hill-Gibbins’ smart directorial decisions instantly establish the community’s claustrophobic quality. Actors move fluidly between the several floors of Becky and John’s cottage as if crossing a single room, and pull drop cloths off other furniture pieces to shift locations.
John’s overenthusiastic embrace of village life and all its eco-pieties, and his initial disinterest in sex with Becky, mask a credibly complex — if borderline neurotic — perfectionism, embodied beautifully by the just-annoying-enough Burns. Alexandra Gilbreath offers a spot-on portrait of wound-up, overfriendly — in fact, under-challenged and lonely — neighbor Jenny.
But the fascinating and contradictory center of this play is Becky. What prompts her reckless, increasingly destructive behavior (which includes enacting a rape fantasy in her own home)? Is she hormonal? Freaked out by the prospect of parenthood changing her life? Using an ability to attract men to assuage her insecurities? Or is it that she discovers pleasure and self-fulfillment in sex that she wants to believe trumps all previous values and commitments? Skinner boldly suggests all these possibilities, and while she loses her nerve somewhat with clunky plotting toward the end (do we really need to meet Oliver’s wife?), the scribe nonetheless mines important and under-charted territory in this exploration of women’s sexuality.
Garai embraces everything the role asks of her — from onstage masturbation to spending much of her time in a scanty nightie to that fake rape scene — and offers a wholly engaging and credible account of Becky’s emotional and psychological journey. If there’s a problem, it’s that Garai’s extraordinary luminosity makes it difficult to credit her as someone who sees herself as overweight and not very bright. Yes, many women’s self-destructive tendency to imagine the worst about themselves is one of Skinner’s points, but casting one of Britain’s most beautiful women may not have been the best way to make it.
Overall, though, this is a meaty, entertaining and provocative evening, proving Skinner a worthy winner of this year’s George Devine award for most promising playwright.