Unfamiliar with Paula Vogel’s 1997 play, How I Learned to Drive, I acquainted myself and immediately felt as though this could be something really special. I had expectations of a deeply real and human piece; one that perhaps, despite the specific subject matter, still manages to resonate ferociously with everyone who sees it. Jack Sain’s production for Southwark Playhouse is full of potential but unfortunately misses the mark.
Originally premiering off-Broadway and starring Weeds actress Mary-Louise Parker in the title role, Vogel’s work won her a Pulitzer Prize. How I Learned to Drive then continued to gain acclaim across the country in various productions but never had its time in London. Until now.
Beginning in Maryland in 1967, 17-year-old Li’l Bit is having a driving lesson with her Uncle Peck. She lives with him and her extended family which includes her mother, Aunt Mary, grandmother and grandfather. In a series of flashbacks that relate both her future and past – going as far back as her aged 11, Li’l Bit takes the audience through the unsettling relationship she has with her uncle.
Story-wise, Vogel’s metaphorical use of the driving lessons and ultimately the car as a way for the characters to execute and lose control, impede and gain freedom, is original and important, ensuring the piece is well-rounded and focused. She draws you into Li’l Bit’s experiences so well that when the chatty character offers lightly-toned complacency it is often difficult to realise the tragedy and destruction that constantly threatens to smack us in the face. The predominance of paedophilia is a common approach I’ve seen in other works of fiction as Peck manipulates his niece’s loneliness and apparent youth and naivety to get what he wants. But it’s not always as simple as that. Society’s ignorance of sexuality in general is a crucial aspect of How I Learned to Drive, from its time, to Li’l Bit’s family and their deeply confused attitude towards sex.
The intimacy of Southwark Playhouse’s Little Space works for the mindfulness of the play. Katharine Heath’s set comprises of a made-up car (the focal point), road signs on either side of the stage, marking milestones in Li’l Bit’s life and various other props that come and go. Heath’s costumes fit the time and the context as she especially places the women around the protagonist in ill-fitting shift dresses, whilst emphasising Li’l Bit’s figure and insecurities.
Olivia Poulet and William Ellis’s leads are good, though not exceptional. Poulet’s presence on stage doesn’t always convince and she often appears unsure of her intention, and her portrayal of the much younger character feels more of an imitation than a developed person. Ellis’s Uncle Peck isn’t a stereotypical monster, nor does he seem calculating. Yes his behaviour towards a child is wrong but he masterfully offers ambiguity and sympathy.
As the other characters, Bryony Corrigan, Holly Hayes and Joshua Miles are exceptional. Corrigan, especially as the grandmother, is highly humorous and flips between characters with admirable ease and conviction.
I have trouble understanding how convincing this is intended to be. Researching the show’s past productions, I found this is consistently evident. The actors are the completely wrong ages for the characters they are giving us. The shocking impact I so desperately wanted was excruciatingly absent as the age gap between the two seemed non-existent and certainly far away from what is offered. Is this driven to shock or just be indicative? Certainly worth seeing, I’d be very interested to know what take others have on this because I am still undecided.
How I Learned to Drive is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Jack Sain.