Hope amongst horror

Our journalist Ella Rhodes reviews 'How I learned to drive' at the Southwark Playhouse, and the post-performance discussion with Claudia Hammond and Dr Lucy Maddox.

The Pulitzer-prize winning play How I learned to Drive presents the disturbing story of a young girl’s sexual relationship with her aunt’s husband. Blurring the lines between abuser and victim, empathy and disgust, this production of the 1997 Paula Vogel play is compelling, at times humorous, and deeply troubling.

The intimate performance space at Southwark Playhouse is lined with corrugated iron and neon signs, a minimalist but powerful depiction of 1960s America, at its centre the car where teenager Li’l Bit is taught to drive by her Uncle Peck. The disjointed narrative, which skips forward and backward in time, captures the complexities of intra-familial abuse and perhaps the confusion felt by victims of such experiences. Uncle Peck, with his slicked-back hair and Southern drawl, is seen first as an abuser but simultaneously as an understanding and caring uncle who helps his niece escape their dysfunctional family by weekly outings in his car. This contrast forces the audience to confront a perhaps unbearable truth, that even the most seemingly kind and normal of people can hold deeply sinister desires.

Thanks to William Ellis’ wonderful performance we feel pity and disgust towards Peck at the same time. Fluctuating between humour and horror, this production left me moved and uneasy. All five performers were excellent throughout, forcing us to join them on a journey which would normally spark revulsion. L’il Bit, the central character played by the astonishing Olivia Poulet, is a refreshingly strong and resilient character, played with gusto. She changes perceptions of victims. We see that victimhood is relative and can affect any number of people, no matter how strong they might be. The minimalist and stylised staging and Jack Sain’s direction lend themselves perfectly to content which needs very little illustrating, with so much left unspoken. 

This play is incredibly clever for making us despise yet somehow feel empathy for the abuser, Uncle Peck. The narrative hints at the potential cause for his abusive behaviour while also presenting us with the plain facts – he has abused before, and he is doing the same to Li’l Bit. In its final scenes we finally come to fully understand the shocking extent of the abuse she has endured at the hands of her uncle.

As well as the narrative at its core, the play also explores gender roles in 60s Maryland and the female experience of sex and relationships at the time – experiences which are perennially topical and relevant. This play can speak to any number of people: it forces us to challenge our perceptions, which is not always a comfortable experience.

Following the production was a discussion of the psychological themes found in the play, with presenter of Radio 4’s All in the Mind Claudia Hammond speaking to clinical psychologist Lucy Maddox. Dr Maddox works with teenagers and young people who have experienced sexual abuse themselves. She said this ‘powerful’ play captured the complexities of family dynamics in families where abuse exists. ‘The disjointed nature of the whole production reminds me of listening to traumatic narratives which often aren’t straightforward and coherent… in fact it’s hard to get a coherent picture of what’s gone on because it’s hard for people to piece together in a clear storyline. It’s rare that someone will tell you from beginning to end what’s happened. That’s why it’s often so hard for people who’ve experienced sexual abuse to get their cases heard – the nature of what’s happened to them means they present in a way which seems less coherent and can seem less believable.’

When asked about our shifting attitudes towards the character of Uncle Peck, Maddox said it was often an uncomfortable task to question just why a person has become an abuser, but that it was an essential question in tackling sexual abuse. She said: ‘The play and the actors captured that sense of grooming really well… where someone’s made to feel so special…  she was getting listened to and getting away from her family who didn’t understand her, but the consequences of that were devastating.’

Maddox also spoke about some of her own research into what happens to victims of sexual abuse who report an incident but are not believed. ‘Most of my research has been with grown victims of sexual assault ,and we’ve looked at how the psychological consequences of sexual assault can stop people from talking about what happens and how that affects the legal process.  About two-thirds of people who report a rape or sexual assault then drop out of the process through their own decision-making. A lot of that’s to do with the psychological consequences of what’s happened to them as well as how they’re reacted to.’ She added: ‘There’s been a lot of work done on “Silencing” – if people talk about what’s happened and aren’t believed, the effects of that can be devastating and people don’t talk about it for tens of years. The way we react to people reporting sexual assault or abuse is really important.’

L’il Bit was a resilient and strong victim, and Dr Maddox felt ‘they portrayed her sexiness really well… it’s an uncomfortable part of it that she’s a sexual being who is being sexualised and taken advantage of. But there’s hope at the end of the play, it spoke to resilience. There’s a large literature on resilience after sexual abuse. This play captured really well the fact that the effects of sexual abuse are severe and wide-ranging, but there’s such a thing as resilience despite it. The research seems to suggest that even having one protective relationship is really important, one person you have strong attachment to and takes care of you and doesn’t break your boundaries is incredibly important. So there’s a bit of hope there.’

- The play is showing at Southwark Playhouse until March 14. Our readers can get tickets for the discounted price of £12 by quoting the code ‘PSYCHTODAY’.

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