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The Village Bike, Royal Court Theatre, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Tuesday 05 July 2011 00:00 BST

The received wisdom is that it's the male partner who suffers the sex starvation during pregnancy. Penelope Skinner reverses that "norm" in her new play, The Village Bike, its very title dropping a strong hint that we are not about to be detained by a drama concerning female restraint. This is not so much Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as "Cat Under a Leaky Roof". The pipes are sweating and clanking in the country cottage where Becky, an English teacher, has just relocated with her ad-man husband, John.

Becky is sweating too and not just because of the sultry weather. John, a cute but wet eco-fusspot amusingly played by Nicholas Burns, is more interested in baby manuals and ethically sourced meat than in Becky in her slinky nightie. So as not to offend the foetus, he seems to have foresworn sex completely, which leaves the frustrated Becky (portrayed with utter persuasiveness at every turn by the excellent Romola Garai) rummaging in the stash of porn videos they used to use to spice up their love lives.

We watch her masturbating to Wenches, a hard-core romp set in that lusty 18th century. Then, in a very funny fluster of embarrassed suggestiveness and Freudian slips, Becky's life starts to imitate her fantasies as a widowed plumber (Phil Cornwell) is followed into the house by Oliver, the heartless village lothario (wickedly well played by Dominic Rowan). Taking a break from a local am-dram rehearsal, he's dressed up as a highwayman and he's come to sell her the bike that sends her in escapist rapture to kinky erotic trysts at his house.

Splendidly staged and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, the piece offers a bitingly comic take on sexual double standards and on the idea that porn, with its stock imagery of female submission, "liberates" women. It's pervasively bleak too, as the gushingly helpful, pro-baby neighbour (spot-on Alexandra Gilbreath) is revealed to be a lonely virtual widow desperate for some respite from her kids. You can never believe, though, that Becky and her husband have a marriage or a prior sex life worth saving, so it's disappointing that the play, which seemed to promise that it would unsettle conventions, turns into a pretty standard cautionary tale. The Village Bike is, in the end, old-fashioned, rather like the sit-up-and-beg that Becky purchases.

To 30 July (020 7565 5000)

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