In the era of sex-positive successes such as the most recent Netflix obsession Sex Education, we might feel as though our yearnings for more diverse narratives about sex have been fully satisfied. Britomart Productions’ performance of Skin a Cat by Isley Lynn proves otherwise. The setting is familiar: the bedroom of a teenage girl (beautifully designed by Flora Clark). Her quest? To achieve ultimate sexual knowledge by losing her virginity. However, the outcome is entirely new, and the production dextrously and humorously articulates all the nuances of a far more complicated sexual awakening than the one we bargained for.
The play tells the story of Alana’s (Millie Tupper) journey towards self-acceptance – a journey which begins, crucially, at the instance of her first period. This opening immediately sets the tone for the production, with direct address to audience working wonders here as Alana’s mother (Martha Harlan) urgently enquires after a sanitary pad to the amusement of people in the front row. However, this uncomfortable beginning also constituted the small but painful seed that births much of the confusion and shame running through later parts of the play. Harlan wonderfully portrays the concerned yet evasive, even angry mother who by attempting an explanation of this experience to her nine-year-old daughter only instils further confusion, concluding curtly with “no more swimming” and “I’ll buy you a book.”
Such moments of shameful inarticulacy are immediately extinguished by the exhilarating frankness of the production itself. The actors revel in the vulgarity of the language which ranges from descriptions of period blood like “stringy aliens” to “trimmed cocks” and “peen in vagine.” The lack of self-consciousness and constant playfulness on stage is worthy of high praise for both the actors, and co-directors Kitty Low and Martha West. The sex scenes are portrayed with zero embarrassment (no, seriously, none), and skilfully towe the line between what seems to be genuine enjoyment and heightened teenage sexual performativity. This comfortability on stage allowed the audience to laugh freely and joyously.
The use of multi-roling was highly effective in portraying the different figures orbiting around Alana, our central focus, as she evolves and matures. Martha West and Harold Serero are particularly noteworthy for their transformations and the humour they brought to each role, yet both never slipping into caricature. Hannah Taylor delivered two standout monologues as Pete, which brought considerable depth and pathos to a role which could have read only superficially as an awkward-teenage-boy. The production in general plays on our fondness for the familiar tropes of teenage sexuality, like Alana’s frantic questioning “Where’s the DIAGRAM?” as she tries to insert a tampon or Pete and Alana hiring a hotel room for their “first time” because they “wanted it to be, you know, American.” However, all these expectations of sex are broken down by the idiosyncrasies of sexual experience and the unattainability of that elusive common denominator – “normal.”
Achieving ‘normality’ is Alana’s quest after she discovers her difficulty with penetrative sex is due to a psychosexual condition called vaginismus. Millie Tupper excellently portrays Alana’s increasingly shameful frustration – and this is not the dorky sexual frustration typical of our favourite high-school movies, but the genuine, tear-inducing, gut-wrenching frustration of reaching a milestone which is supposedly some universal moment – losing your virginity – and….it doesn’t work. According to Alana, her “cunt is broken”.
Low and West’s production, amidst much hilarity, cuts right through to the most vulnerable of feelings, and asks us to rethink the ways we contort ourselves to fit the simplistic sexual narratives we have been ingesting for so long.