Director Ngaire Dawn Fair and Red Stitch Theatre address identity, sexuality and society in their production of Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike. The play follows a young woman, Becky, whose pregnancy forces a shift in her relationship with her husband, John, as it becomes clear that their sexual needs and interests no longer align. Unsatisfied at home and annoyed with the strangers who are suddenly so interested in her womb, Becky finds herself drawn to her neighbor, Oliver, and soon begins an intimate sexual relationship with him.
The Village Bike is directed by Red Stitch alum Ngaire Dawn Fair, who doesn’t hold back in accentuating the raw, sexual intensity of this piece. Fair’s direction is dynamic and bold, the characters move through the space and the story with fluidity that speaks to the whirlwind nature of Becky’s adventures. The pacing of the show is perhaps a little uneven: the build-up to the inevitable affair with Oliver is slow and followed by a second act that matches Becky’s frenzied energy and maintains that level for quite some time. In a piece that runs for two and a half hours, this intensity ultimately wears thin and lessens the impact of the conclusion.
Visually, however, The Village Bike is a beautiful piece of work. Sophie Woodward’s set is stunning; its multiple levels and shifting set pieces allow it to serve as more than one location. It is really brought to life as Becky and John’s home; the exposed pipes and roughly painted walls highlight their relationship as a “fixer-upper,” while the alcove-style kitchen area serves to represent Becky’s claustrophobic feelings toward domestic life. The complexity of the set also allows other areas of the production team to shine, as stage manager Chichi Nwokocha deftly handles the live water effects and innumerable set changes. Springett’s lighting design really shines in these transitions, subtly drawing the eye away from major set movement to personal, intimate moments with Becky. Holland’s contribution as sound designer is also not to be overlooked, the trans-generational music choices provide insight into each character, while also helping to build tension in certain key scenes.
The cast handles the lengthy material deftly. Richard Davies brings much-needed comic relief in his role as Becky’s husband, John. Davies leans into the comedy in his numerous diatribes about ethical farming, but brings a sweetness to the role that makes him innately likeable, despite moments of controlling behaviour. Brisbane’s Mike and Herbert’s Jenny invoked appropriate levels of annoyance and sympathy, while Makeeva spoke volumes in her limited time on the stage. Matt Dyktynski was compelling as Oliver, handling the shift from “slightly odd neighbor” to “threatening ex-lover” subtly throughout the course of the play.
Ella Caldwell clearly has the biggest challenge here though, as she brings to life a character whose journey is contradictory at best. Becky’s underlying motive throughout The Village Bike is to maintain authority over her sexual and personal identity, which society (and her husband) seeks to rob her of. Her sexual exploits with neighbor Oliver do not simply represent a desire for sexual satisfaction, but also a deeper search to find her new identity by engaging in role-play and dangerous behavior. Caldwell does a great job revealing the insecurity behind Becky’s often-contradictory actions, allowing small hints of vulnerability to slip through in even the raunchiest of scenes.
The Village Bike managed to arouse some very uncomfortable feelings regarding its conclusion. Becky may be unscrupulous in her actions, but her inner desires are very relatable and one can’t help but hope that she will find some way to get what she needs. This is not the case. By the end she is broken and practically catatonic – submitting to her unwanted fate as wife and mother. This ending feels like a punishment for her audacity to seek out her own freedom, and it was very hard to watch.
Undoubtedly, this is the point of the piece; to highlight the fact that society still does not allow women authority over their own sexuality. However, by placing Becky as both the villain and the victim of the piece, this message becomes confused. Ultimately, however, The Village Bike was an entertaining night at the theatre, sure to challenge the audience’s thoughts on sexual politics while also providing a laugh or two.