At first glance Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike could be mistaken for a stage version of The Archers – rural idyll: check, regular references to organic meat and countryside planning laws: check, a cast of local characters demonstrating the rich tapestry of village life: check. That said, if it was an episode of the Archers it would be surely be a late night version as this play is racier than even the infamous shower scene between Jolene and Sid.
The action centres on Becky a newly pregnant teacher who has just moved to the eponymous village with her husband John. Becky’s ‘condition’ has released a heady cocktail of hormones which has her buying new negligee and rifling through John’s porn collection. Her husband by contrast won’t be seduced, for him Becky has been transformed from lover to mother and he’s more interested in folic acid and baby books than oysters and 50 Shades of Grey. With the summer holiday heat wave making Becky even hotter she begins to look beyond the marital bed, queue a flood of double entrendres with the plumber and some animal magnetism with the local roué Oliver. When he arrives at her door dressed as a highwayman (for the village am dram of course) brandishing a bike we feel sure it isn’t the only thing she’ll end up riding. I’m afraid it’s impossible to avoid innuendo when reviewing this play.
Penelope Skinner’s writing has all the qualities of the very best of sitcom – fast, furious, funny and in this case not a bit filthy. It’s hilariously and toe-curling honest about sexuality, provincial life and middle class pretentions. In one brilliant set-piece, performed with relish by Christopher Harper, John berates Becky for the mortal sin of a) shopping at Tesco and b) using their planet-choking plastic bags when we know her sins are far worse. There are also darker moments, revealing the enduring inequality of gender politics and the insidious influence of pornography and sexual compulsion on relationships. It’s only a little disappointing that this rich mix doesn’t have a punchier ending.
Jonathan Humphreys skilfully balances the carry-on campery with some painfully affecting moments to produce an evening which is gleefully entertaining with a bitter edge. The cast are perfectly pitched and as an ensemble display a chemistry as potent as Oliver and Becky’s. Amy Cudden plays Becky with a pleasing complexity, a woman torn between her libido and domesticity, while David Bark-Jones as Oliver undercuts his loveable lothario act with an unsettling cruelty. Caroline Harker sparkles as Jenny, a hooray-Harriet type who finds her sense of self slowly chipped away by her young sons’ derision and a constant chorus of Bob the Builder.
Despite being a new play (this is its first outing since the premiere at the Royal Court last year) there’s something old fashioned about The Village Bike with its homely set, familiar characters and liberal helpings of smut. However, this skilfully wrought production shows just how full of wit it is, secreting uncomfortable truths about the failings of monogamy within a setting we know only too well.