This was my first visit to Southwark Playhouse, wedged between Elephant & Castle and Borough, and the typical British weather wasn’t exactly welcoming. Described as “one of the most important venues on the London Fringe scene”, the Southwark Playhouse is applauded for providing high quality productions for its surrounding communities. Sticking to the twinkling London’s West End theatres, I tend to get anxious when I stray onto the urban track. I appreciate experimental theatre, but I wasn’t expecting Hollywood glamour, jaw dropping dramatic energy or state of the art technology from today’s adventure.
Welcomed into a darkened studio with the worry of fighting the crowds for the best seat, I sat in the far corner, next to the red flashing “X Rated Drive In Girls Girls Girls” sign. The intimate stage was incredible, allowing the audience to be extremely close to the cast members and even walk onto the set. (Part of me thought I am nowhere near worthy to touch what Olivia Poulet can touch!) Being a matinee performance, people trickled in and there was plenty of space to claim my bench territory. At first, I thought I was sitting in a 1960’s American barn, but the overhead power cables and contradictory signage of “Maryland US 1“, “N. Carolina US 21“, a ” Son of God” cross along with “Reel Men Play with their flies” told me this was a play to remember.
Gathering from the play’s title How I Learned to Drive, I already felt a deep connection towards the awaiting drama: a learner’s first time nerves, revising numerous manoeuvres (which licensed drivers tend to forget or ignore!) and the disappointing failures of embarrassing mistakes (we all have to learn somewhere, Dear!). I seemed to had skipped the instruction manual regarding this play…”sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.” There were no emergency stops, just a disturbing U-turn into a dark family drama.
We meet Olivia Poulet’s character, Lil Bit, who narrates both her adult and child years with absolute perfection. Who knew a simple prop such as a red hairband could transform a thirty something actress into a believable teenage girl. Or perhaps it is Poulet’s strong commanding stage presence as she delivers her monologues with child-like poise, sassy confidence and heart-breaking vulnerability. Enter William Ellis’ Uncle Peck into the Poulet’s one woman drama and BAM! You have got an intriguing yet uncomfortable relationship established between uncle and niece for the one hundred and twenty minutes (Move over EastEnders!)
Ellis was fantastic at playing a disturbing relative and his haunting lines such as “I loved you since you were born” and the humorous claims “I only read Playboy for the interviews” stuck out like a sore thumb, throbbing with an incestuous love. Right at the end of the play, you had an uncomfortable watch as Lil Bit grips onto the steering wheel, desperately wanting to learn how to drive, whilst sitting in her uncle’s lap as he fondles with her breasts. Lil Bit’s outer body experience destroys the causally titled play with a haunting childhood memory for both the character and indeed the audience.
There were some comedic moments involving the other cast members, Bryony Corrigan, Holly Hayes and Joshua Miles, who had a crippling task of playing various characters throughout the play. From playing relatives from a type of ‘Royle Family’, taunting school friends to postal workers bearing Uncle Peck’s red letters, the trio were fantastic contributors and provided a much needed comedy relief.
How I Learned To Drive was exactly what I wanted to experience for my first time to the Southwark Playhouse. Their Little theatre was a surprising snug and intimate creative space, where the cast could perform with an engaging connection with all audience members. The incredible chemistry of Olivia Poulet and William Ellis was a joy to watch and will be names I will certainly watch out for. I will return to Southwark Playhouse as it was totally unfair of me to prejudge its expectation based upon the distance from the West End hills streets of stardom.
Better hurry if you want to experience How I Learned To Drive for yourself! Performances end on Saturday 14th March. Book your ticket here.
Big thanks to Jessica Campbell (Producer) and Marina from Thoughtful Theatre