Skin A Cat should be compulsory viewing for anyone under 25. Scratch that, it should be compulsory viewing for everyone. A hysterically funny, warm-hearted, autobiographical three-hander about one girl’s struggle to understand her own body, Isley Lynn’s play educates as much as it entertains. And Blythe Stewart’s production, which started life in Waterloo’s Vaults back in January, makes a perfect opening show for The Bunker, South London’s newest theatre – a shabby-chic converted car-park underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Alana (Lydia Larson) narrates the story of her own sexual journey, from shy high-school handholds to inept teenage fumblings and beyond. But it’s not just predictable American Pie escapades, although there are a few. After a number of painful experiences, Alana soon learns that she has Vaginismus, a psycho-sexual condition that makes ‘regular’ intercourse incredibly difficult, try though she might.
Accompanied on Tracey Emin’s Holly Pigott’s unmade bed set by Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, who slip in and out of the action as various supporting characters, Larson is a friendly, welcoming and utterly human presence as Alana. Her humility, her nerves, her sense of humour, and her downright Britishness ensure the audience relates to her throughout as she navigates her way through incompetent parenting, bragging teenagers and increasingly intolerant boyfriends. Clark and Ahluwalia are similarly superb, offering a set of entertaining cameos that range from the grotesque to the gallingly recognisable.
Lynn’s dialogue plots a precarious path between squeamishness and solemnity, embracing a no-frills frankness that provides a freedom to both laugh and learn. Skin A Cat is amusing and arresting for the same reason: it is fundamentally honest, managing to be piercingly emotionally articulate without saying all that much at all. Few plays capture the excitement and the frustration of blossoming teenage sexuality so accurately.
For this is a play about what is not said, just as much as what is. Alana tells no-one about her difficulties until she is in her early twenties. Every time her boyfriend rolls over in exasperation, or her best friend asks if everything’s okay, the awkward silences and faux-nonchalant shrugs speak volumes about our society’s prevailing priggishness. It’s modest, exquisite theatre.
But a regulation plea for openness, honesty and patience in sex is not the only undercurrent of Lynn’s play. In its refusal to allow a conventional resolution, and instead emphasising the importance of enjoying life on one’s own terms, of embracing the psychological nuances and biological quirks that make us all human, Skin A Cat transcends its cliché. Be under no illusions: this is no high-school, Sex-Ed snoozefest. Far from it. Blythe Stewart’s production – although it could lose fifteen minutes here and there – is a stylish, sympathetic staging of some seriously important new writing.
Skin a Cat is playing at The Bunker until November 5.
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge