This Pulitzer prize-winner has taken the cosy boards of Southwark Playhouse by storm. Set primarily in 1960s Maryland, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive explores dangerous liaisons, gender relations and aspiration – and excels in its presentation of all three.
Olivia Poulet capably navigates her character, Li’l Bit, through the varying stages of maturity: from a child surrounded by conflicting family influences, to a woman determined to make the best of her talent and surroundings.
Li’l Bit’s Uncle Peck determines to teach her something useful – that is, how to drive a car – but these sessions adopt a sinister tone and leave the audience as witness to his crimes. Uncle Peck (a remarkably diverse William Ellis) is a classic Humbert Humbert: simultaneously odious and pitiful, and the play’s monologues take time to expand upon this dichotomy.
It’s a complex, multilayered script, and one which director Jack Sain has interpreted with poise and sensitivity. With a deliberately disorganised time sequence and a chorus of varying characters, this is no mean feat. Markers are presented over loudspeaker in the form of a driving manual; an extended metaphor of innocence to experience, the ever-present plush leather car seats remain centre-stage, quietly presiding.
The production’s set design and music deserve special mention: from eerie choral pieces to the heady pop of 60s and 70s USA, to walls plastered with adverts for liquor, “X-rated girls” and, incongruously, Jesus – who saves all sinners.
This is a courageously crafted platter of a production, which manages to pack its punches while tickling an audience: as well-swung and pacy as any tragicomedy should be.