Skin A Cat
26th October 2016
In this newest adjunct to the booming fringe theatre scene in London – a fascinatingly configured underground neighbour to the Off-West-End Menier Chocolate Factory, Artistic Director Josh McTaggart and Executive Producer Joel Fisher have scored a great success with their opening production: a hit at last summer’s Vaults Festival about female sexual health. It has attracted warm reviews and near-capacity houses (on the night I went, at least 75% young women). And it is easy to understand why. This is a kind of theatrical equivalent to a Tracy Emin show: with astonishing perception, truthfulness, daring and elegant simplicity in its execution, this drama plunges into the ‘core’ of what it is to be a woman, utterly captivating its audience, which is mainly female. The directness of the communication of feminine life experience here draws abundant laughter from the intently focussed and concentrated crowd, who – one suspects – are laughing at their own lives as much as the one put under the forensic microscope in this presentation. There is a lot, in fact, in the writing – and delivery – that reminds one of the best female stand-up comedy, and the audience here seems to be very like the audience for that other form.
My ignorance of the earlier work of Isley Lynn (at least eight other plays that have been seen from London to Vienna, ranging from the Tristan Bates, to the Arcola and Royal Court) prevents me from making any wider judgements about her abilities, but this drama is intensely concentrated on one approach to the, Isley readily admits, heavily autobiographical subject matter: a girl is shocked to discover the onset of puberty at the age of nine; her mother is distant and cold; by the time she becomes sexually active, she experiences horrible pain during any vaginal activity. The play is an elaboration of how, where, when and why this may have arisen, and what – if anything – could or should be done in response to it. A lot of characters are allowed into this story, but only on the strict understanding that they relate – precisely, and closely – to the main topic of conversation, the heroine Alana’s sex life.
Lydia Larson takes on the title role in just her underwear, while two other – mostly dungaree-clad – actors, one female (the exemplary Jessica Clark, relishing the huge scope of characterisations she can display), one male (the equally versatile and enthusiastic Jassa Ahluwalia, with a particularly strong line in comedy), take on all the other parts. The script, already published by Oberon Books, consists almost entirely of duologues between Alana and her mother, and various friends and conquests, inter spliced with monologues for Alana. Many initial readers of the script in the industry wanted to change things about it, but Isley has stuck to her guns and her focus is admirable. The result is that the play’s appeal is wider that its immediate content might suggest: it is an exploration of human identity at a very deep level.
It is a very brave and clearly written piece, given a wonderfully plain and coherent production by director Blythe Stewart, ably given physical realisation by designer Holly Pigott and Harrison Routledge’s lighting (with associate, Jess Sanders). Zoe Robinson is the producer bringing the work to Southwark. But a large number of people stand behind its longer journey, especially the producers of the Vaults outing that caught the eye of The Bunker: Sophie Cornell for Essee Productions, Cara McAleese and Isabelle Dixon. Quite where it’s going next is anybody’s guess, but The Bunker is beginning with a strong and attractive launch.
Photos courtesy of David Monteith Hodge