“Was that the most masturbation you’ve ever seen in a play?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle, on waking the morning after seeing last Saturday’s preview of “The Village Bike”. “On stage, yes, I think” I replied, erasing distant memories of the 16 year old me seeing “Oh Calcutta” with a pal. This bright and breezy award-winning comedy by Penelope Skinner started life last year at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and fits perfectly into that adaptable and stimulating space, the Studio at the Sheffield Crucible. They’re staging it in traverse, which always adds to the intimacy of a play because there is no hiding place on that stage and you really feel part of the action.
Becky and John are expecting their first baby, and whilst John is thrilled at the prospect and launches himself 100% into pre-natal research, the effect on Becky is simply to switch her randiness thermostat to boiling point. Newly moved into a village, Becky buys a second hand bike, ostensibly to explore her new surroundings and keep her pregnancy fitness levels up, but it ends up being the vehicle for her to widen the circle of her friends, in many ways, as it were. I won’t spoil it for you with any more plot revelations.
It’s a delightfully creative set by Fabrice Serafino, with fully functioning kitchen, bedroom with apparent ensuite, overactive plumbing, a video wall, and even an inventive way of representing the open road pouring with rain. That’s pretty good going for a space that small. The kitchen chairs were those clear Perspex ones that Mrs C has always had a fondness for – a nice touch suggesting youthful domestic aspiration. The play itself is rather beautifully written and constructed – with one slight quibble, more of which later; it doesn’t shy away from some awkward subjects, it absolutely connects with the audience (a lot of laughter of recognition) and basically it’s very, very funny. The words are juicy enough to give the actors clear insight into the characters they are portraying, and it’s all rather lovingly directed by Jonathan Humphreys, who gave us his excellent Happy Days last year at the same theatre.
The acting is of a uniformly high standard throughout. Absolutely central to the play is Becky, played by Amy Cudden. She’s hardly ever off stage and her whole performance is a delight, whether she’s squabbling in bed with her husband or tripping over her words with some lousy (and hilarious) come-on type chat with the plumber or the bike seller. She has great timing too – I noticed quite a few occasions when she waited for the audience’s guffaws to die down before carrying on, something I always appreciate. And it would be hard to ignore the fact that she deploys her feminine charms in a pleasingly subtle way, if I may refer you to Mrs C’s opening comment.
I must tell you about two other especially superb performances. Christopher Harper as her eco-warrior husband John gives a wonderful comic performance, interlaced with perfectly pitched pathos. Splendidly earnest, and blind to a woman’s needs as only a husband can be, he has some great set piece scenes like where he gives Becky her “surprise” from Amsterdam, and when he is lying innocently on the bed reading a breastfeeding manual whilst Becky is “otherwise engaged”. I loved his ways of coping with his wife’s mood swings – that slightly patronising tone and mealy-mouthed smile; we’re all guilty of it. Mind you, he really is helped by Penelope Skinner’s script in these scenes, which is perfect to a syllable. Perhaps his best scene is where you think he is going to find out about her infidelity but, typically, he misses the point – really very funny.
The other superb performance is from Caroline Harker as Jenny, the “experienced mother” neighbour who always wants a chat at inopportune moments and is frightfully well-meaning, yet has a surprisingly humorous innocence about her too. At times she was a bit like Margo Leadbetter meets Miriam Stoppard, heartily dispensing baby advice with lots of middle class girl-power. She got some of the best laughs of the night. The rest of the company are all very good, and extremely well cast. David Bark-Jones as the former owner of the bike, Oliver, hits the right level of sleaziness and ruthlessness. Sean McKenzie’s Mike the plumber is amusingly bemused throughout, and Alice Selwyn makes the most of her brief but wittily written part as Alice.
My only quibble with the play is how it ends. The final 30 seconds for me did nothing to add to the understanding of the characters or their plight, it wasn’t particularly funny and, in fact, it verged on the embarrassing. I’ve thought about it more over the past couple of days, and concluded that it just doesn’t work. Omitting it wouldn’t work either, as the scene before has a quiet and introverted ending, so it definitely needs a final punch – but this isn’t it. More like a whimper than a bang. But don’t let that minor aspect bother you because it really is a very funny play with a bright and thoughtful production and some star performances. Highly recommended.