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HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE – Southwark Playhouse, London.

William Ellis, Olivia PouletIt’d be a bit reductive to say this is a story of small-town Hicksville, USA with a pervy uncle and a girl whose family can’t, or won’t,  protect her. There is much more going on here. Through layers of memory and narrative we see the damage done by blind acceptance of “family is family” and what happens when no one stands up to a bully in How I Learned To Drive.

Though it’s told in a confusing, shifting chronology it’s easy by the end to trace Li’l Bit’s story. Uncle Peck has “loved her since the day I held you in my hand” but clearly not in the way an uncle should. Through distorted flashbacks we see their contact, her damage and the utter failure of her family to recognise the harm and protect her.

Packing a sometimes violent emotional slug to the guts, playwright Paula Vogel has taken the story of one little girl in a backwater of Maryland in the 60’s and opened it up to speak to everyone. Li’l Bit (Olivia Poulet) herself is quite a separate, intriguing creation. Terribly complex, she is quite damaged by Peck. But there is a strong debate to be had over how much agency she had in their relationship. Was she actually a willing participant, or was she taken in by a masterful manipulator? Vogel’s brilliance can be seen in one of the play’s most powerful lines, which could support either argument; after mirroring her uncle’s actions with a minor (she, late 20’s, he, mid-teens): “this is how the giver gets taken”. Does she understand her uncle now after tasting the powerful feeling the coupling gave her? Forgive him perhaps?

Peck (William Ellis) himself is a superb portrait. Weak and disgusting, we as an audience are forced to almost collude with the family in ignoring his actions and watching passively as his actions are apologised for, explained away and witnessed. He is an intelligent manipulator, inveigling his niece into compromising situations through refined technique (though again, we question how much she was a willing participant). He uses Socratic questioning to subtly make her think she has all the power, before it is revealed she actually does and he breaks his calm exterior.

Supported by three admirably cast chorus figures who act as the family members. As Big Papa, Joshua Miles gives us great comedy, even though he’s a terribly objectionable man and grandfather. The set design is super, lighting and sound well thought out and essential elements to the show.

It seems like there’s not a lot wrong with it at all, but somewhere in the background there are a few niggles with shifting accents, some moments where the actors were on stage and not the characters, and some parts that seem unnecessary to the play as a whole. Still, for a runtime of under two hours, you’re looking at a really impactful, thought-provoking and tough piece of theatre.

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Reviewed 13/02/15

By Karl O’Doherty
@Karlodoherty

11th February – 14th March 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD.

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