Thursday, October 20, 2016

'Skin a Cat' at the Bunker, 19th October 2016

Alana's cunt is broken. It is, as Thomas De Quincey said in Confessions of an Opium Eater, "sealed up, like the valley of Rasselas, against the intrusion of the world". Skin a Cat, by Isley Lynn, chronicles Alana's gynecological woes as she seeks to find out what's wrong with her and how she can fix it.

We first meet Alana (Lydia Larson) as a nine year old experiencing her first menstruation. Her embarrassed mother scuttles between holidaymakers trying to find someone with a pad, eventually spluttering a muddled explanation of what's going on to her half confused and half terrified daughter - merely the first in a procession of people gently, kindly but insistently telling Alana there's something wrong with her.

Her problems mount as she heads through school. Despite the urging of her friends, she can't bring herself to use a tampon. A disastrous pre-prom attempt at losing her virginity results in her falling into spasms on the bed, to the horror of her frightened boyfriend. It's not as if she's not a sexual person (she enjoys oral and taking it up the arse) - but by the time she's 25 she's all but resigned to being a vaginal virgin, drolly referring to herself as the girl with the "broken cunt". A medical diagnosis of vaginismus "an involuntary vaginal muscle spasm which makes any kind of vaginal penetration painful or impossible." hardly helps.

Lynn appears to be writing this play from personal experience, explaining in the programme notes that "I wish I could tell my 15-25 year old self that one day all this horrible vagina stuff would make a great play" and that she could use Skin a Cat to "tell other Alanas out there that it's going to be ok." It's a noble goal, and one Lynn largely achieves with play that's strong on kindness, peppered with (refreshingly unflinching) anatomical and sexual detail and pretty goddamn funny to boot.

Entirely staged around a large bed, Alana spends the play in a flesh-coloured bodystocking that gives the impression of nudity without seeming prurient. Most of the time she's speaking directly to the audience, delivering a self-effacing, modest autobiography of her life. Providing the supporting characters (and sound effects) are Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, playing a range of roles from mothers to boyfriends to nurses to pretentious yet effective sex healers.

All three deliver their share of memorable moments. Clark, one of the highlights of summer's Rotterdam, is both scattily awkward as the Mum and touchingly caring as a Devonshire nurse. But it's Ahluwalia who gets the lion's share of the laughs, first in a stumblingly awkward multi-part teenage text message and later in the absurd yet hilarious quasi-buddhist art critic sex guru that patiently helps her through her psychological blocks. This character, Geri (which appropriately enough means "rules with spear"), is perhaps a smidge too broad in contrast with the rest of the play, but when he's this much fun it's difficult to care.

On top of all that is Larson's disarmingly excellent central performance. Simultaneously confident and paranoid, she continually switches gears between re-enacting the past and performing her inner monologue - and does all this with oodles of grace. Alana has depth simply on the page, but Larson latches onto a viscerally real part of her, nimbly scaling the emotional spectrum from despair to triumph. She makes us feel like (and want to be) her friend and confidant, which in turn makes the climax of the play work gangbusters.

Skin a Cat is definitely the most vagina-y (if I was a twat, I'd say yonic) play I've ever seen - and all credit to it for being so. As well as teaching me about vaginismus (I now realise I have encountered in a past partner and didn't know what it was), there's a casual yet forthright feminism baked into every character interaction and red-faced confession. 

Our culture cloaks vaginas in mystery and shame: to the point where our politicians hesitate to even say the word 'tampon'. Plays like this function as a rolling of the eyes and a crucial exhortation to grow the hell up. Recommended.


Skin a Cat is at The Bunker until 5 November. Tickets here

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