Directed by Rachel Chant
Red Line Productions
Old Fitz Theatre
Season: 7 June – 8 July
In Penelope Skinner’s play The Village Bike directed by Rachel Chant, Becky is seemingly happily married and pregnant in a small English country town. Her husband John has a strong environmental conscience and has his head buried in the baby book to best ensure the unborn baby’s wellbeing. They haven’t had sex since Becky got pregnant. We meet Jenny, a busybody neighbour eager to help ease the couple into parenthood. Mike, the village plumber, comes over to attempt to placate the noisy pipes in their home. Oliver, the local eccentric, sells Becky a beloved bike. Relationships interweave, and dissatisfaction breeds temptation.
I felt a strong sense of irritation, frustration and rage through a large part of this show - and it wasn't due to the quality of the production. Rather, it was my personal identification with (and experience of) the sexist and diminishing attitudes of many of the characters in the play that made me sigh. Now in this sense, I think it's a warranted and hopefully helpful frustration. I hope that not only I am wincing in the audience when one character proclaims that "old fat women in bikinis should be banned...or maybe just old fat women". I hope that other men and women in the audience feel uncomfortable when Becky's husband keeps blaming her dissatisfaction with their banal/non-existent sex life on her hormones. Sometimes by putting unsavoury attitudes and behaviour on stage, there is a fine line between highlighting it to create change, and perpetuating it. I believe that Chant intended to call out this behaviour and evoke a sense of discomfort and malaise to create a shift.
Benedict Wall is sweet and gormless as John, yet underneath the veneer of innocent care for his wife can be revealed some more sinister attitudes - those of erasure of Becky's feelings and experiences, the substitution of her individuality with her role as a mother, and egotistical self-absorption. While Rupert Reid elicits sex appeal and charm (with a little goofiness for good measure) as Oliver, he also embodies the 'root and boot' mentality, using women for his clandestine fix of sexual adventurousness before abandoning them and returning to 'faithfulness' with his wife. In both his refusal of sexual exploration with his wife and his objectification of women ‘on the side’ for his own enjoyment, evidence of the Madonna/whore dichotomy in action is crystal clear.
In the midst of a hapless situation, Gabrielle Scawthorn as Becky is welcome relief. She consistently taps into the implicit and explicit humour of the piece and allows you to deeply empathise with her and her circumstances. Critically, Becky is not a saintly figure, paralleling Oliver’s behaviour in her treatment of Mike, the plumber, played by Jamie Oxenbould. This parallel shows us that while men and women may be capable of the same behaviour, the outcome is rarely the same.
I watched the show and then left the theatre, all the while writhing in bitter frustration. It stemmed from my weary identification with so many of the attitudes, echoing from real life, and speaking into some of my fears for my future. All of the actors give strong layered performances, exposing characters that are relatable and real. Perhaps it is this realism that made me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes theatre is an escape – The Village Bike was not a form of escapism for me. It underlines issues that are sewn into the tapestry of contemporary western life in a way that is highly evocative, and for me roused strong emotions. My hope is that by platforming these attitudes and ideas we can begin to shift them, rather than suffocate under their burden. One thing is clear: the status quo must not remain.