Review: How I Learned To Drive, Southwark Playhouse

“I lay on my back in the dark and thought about you, Uncle Peck…”

I’ve always liked Olivia Poulet as an actor but after seeing her starring turn as Li’l Bit in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive, I’m really rating her now as one not to ignore. It helps that Vogel’s play is supremely well-written, skilfully questioning preconceptions about sexually abusive relationships and their ghastly dynamic through a playful format which manages to layer in humour and pathos to prevent it from being a truly dark night of the soul.

It doesn’t mean that this is by any means an easy watch. We see Poulet’s 40-year-old Li’l Bit narrate the experiences of her childhood both as a young girl and as a teenager in a backwoods Maryland town with a great sense of a natural-born raconteur. It’s hard not to be seduced by the stories that roll from her tongue but we soon come to taste the sour beneath the whiskey-heavy breath as the complexity of her relationship with her Uncle Peck slowly comes to light.

Jack Sain’s production also assists in maintaining this careful balance, Katharine Heath’s Americana-inspired design and the ensemble playing of the wryly comic family figures both nodding to the nostalgic feel, whilst William Ellis builds a horrifyingly compelling persona to the war vet uncle whose demands during their driving lessons underscore the harrowing emotional neglect at the heart of the tale. Urgently powerful but never overbearing – highly recommended.  

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 14th March

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