Theatre: Back-seat writer

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The Independent Culture
IN THE light of the ceaseless flow of personal testimonies, few would be foolish enough to deny that the incidence of incest and child abuse is more widespread than had previously been supposed. Writers have not been slow to seize upon the subject's dramatic potential, but the artistic results have been decidedly mixed. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres was a strong, subtle book and a sloppy movie while last year Mike Cullen's play Anna Weiss was marred by misogyny and a fiercely anti-therapy line.

Like Smiley, Paula Vogel's treatment of the subject, How I Learned to Drive arrives in this country garlanded with awards including the Pulitzer prize. With addresses to the audience by the central woman, Lil' Bit, it seems to belong to the "confessional" school of playwriting. Vogel, however, provides a far stronger structure than usual by coupling Lil' Bit's sexual awakening to the metaphor of driving lessons.

Lil' Bit seeks solace from her redneck family in the company and car of her Uncle Peck, but from John Crowley's strongly staged opening scene it's clear that his interest is far from selfless. The car seats are far apart but, thanks to Paul Pyant's lighting, their shadows meet disturbingly across the back wall. They are clearly some way into an incestuous relationship. Why, when and how did it start? Vogel's non-chronological cross-cutting allows her to examine not only the entire family's role in the act, but, more importantly, Lil' Bit's own choices. It is this deliberate blurring of boundaries and the question of her own complicity which accounts for much of the play's notoriety. Yet for all its seeming openness, Vogel's play has a clearly imposed judgemental line which stifles true dramatic richness.

The most interestingly contradictory and least judgemental writing goes to several of the subsidiary characters, notably those played by Jenny Galloway. Her performance as Peck's wife provides the emotional highpoint. Elsewhere, the thinness of the writing and some poor American accents dilute the power of the ideas.

Casting Kevin Whately as Peck must have seemed like a terrific move. Known to millions as Inspector Morse's long-suffering sidekick, he specialises in relaxed, benign warmth but his overwhelming niceness flattens the role out, and in this production Peck lacks necessary edge. That quality, however, dominates Helen McCrory's Lil' Bit. She uses anxious tension to strong effect, notably in the climactic scene where she confronts Peck. Her explosive release seems to vindicate the tension, but elsewhere her fraught physicality is overly demonstrative: in anxiously showing us her character's emotional state she robs us of the opportunity of discerning her difficulties for ourselves. Her hard-won victory provides a triumphant close but you can't escape feeling that you've been spoonfed.