Penelope Skinner: More nourishing drama from a truly gutsy playwright

Penelope Skinner is our leading young feminist writer, says Nione Meakin

Nione Meakin
Wednesday 15 August 2012 12:22 BST

Britain's "most promising playwright" is considering her hopes for her work. "My main aim," she says after some time, "is to avoid working in an office." Penelope Skinner was 30 when her first play, Fucked, opened at the Old Red Lion Theatre – old enough to have discovered precisely what she didn't want to do. "It's made me appreciate that being a writer is a pretty good job and all I care about is being allowed to keep doing it."

It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to stop her; after the acclaimed Fucked in 2009, she wrote Eigengrau for The Bush and last year, The Village Bike, which played a sold-out and twice-extended run at the Royal Court and won her various awards, including the "most promising" tag from the Evening Standard.

Now the 34-year-old is premiering her new play, Fred's Diner, at Chichester Festival Theatre's temporary pop-up space Theatre on the Fly; is she feeling the pressure? "I don't know that you can think about it," she says. "It's nice to win things, but I've also not won things enough times to know I can still stand by my work and believe in it."

She asks me not to reveal too much about Fred's Diner, but it's not giving much away to say that it's set in a purgatorial English motorway café where banal conversations about sandwich fillings give way to ugly truths and violence. It's about the various ways people – especially women – are oppressed, and it's relentlessly, bleakly funny.

She has something of a predilection for this – tickling audiences with one hand while punching them in the guts with the other. It was Skinner who managed to introduce the subject of date-rape into the Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat. "There are some things that are only possible to talk about in the context of humour," she says. "If you go too gritty, people don't want to listen. I feel the subject of rape is often used as a dramatic tool on television. It's meant to be hard-hitting and shocking and that only helps it retain its taboo nature. But rape is horribly common. I suppose I was attempting to make it a bit more normal, to not be afraid of it as a subject matter."

Fucked looked at the complex politics of women selling sex; The Village Bike at motherhood and marital dysfunction. Does she consider herself a feminist writer? "Sometimes I think all my plays are about the same things, over and over," she says with a cautious smile. "But I'd certainly say I'm a feminist writer, yes. There's this term, 'post-feminist society', as though feminism has done its job and it's all alright now… I think things are much more complicated with the idea that equality has been achieved."

Next up is more Fresh Meat (Skinner has written episode five of series two, out later this year) and work on a TV pilot with her older sister Ginny, an artist. The pair are also working on a graphic novel together. "It's about a girl who becomes haunted by the spirit of an old lady," says Skinner, laughing at how implausible it sounds. "She thinks she has ME, but then finds out it's a ghost. We think it's going to be a sort of teenage confessional."

It was Ginny, she reveals, who designed the enormous tattoo on her arm, showing an empty birdcage with an open door. "I asked her to draw something that reminded her of me..."

'Fred's Diner', Theatre on the Fly, Chichester Festival Theatre ( tonight to 2 September

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