Paula Vogel s How I Learned to Drive is the type of piece which will inspire certain types to see it again and again. Squirming in the stalls, they ll giggle before the jokes, recite lines louder than the actors and elbow each other in advance of ‘a really good scene . I should know - two such veterans of the American production were seated next to me at a recent Donmar performance. Oh, the woe.
But the comic enthusiasm of its followers belies the tragic subject at the heart of How I Learned to Drive - incest. L il Bit is a young woman desperate to escape from her Maryland backwoods family where everyone is named after genitalia and the only credentials a woman needs are on her chest. She finds solace behind the wheel of her understanding Uncle Peck s car, but Peck has more in mind than driving lessons.
The story is told in flashback by the now middle-aged L il Bit, with scenes leaping willy-nilly throughout her 1960s childhood. This non-sequential telling sets up a mystery - just what was the nature of the relationship between L il Bit and her uncle? In the laughter-fuelled opening scenes, it appears the young L il Bit is an innocent victim but, as evidence mounts, her actions take on Lolita-esque implications, blurring the question of who is manipulating whom.
Helen McCrory is incredibly versatile as L il Bit, scaling her movements and inflections according to the age required of each scene. And her wonderfully gravelled voice and glassy-eyed gaze, at once desperate and then cold, testify to the horrors inflicted upon her character.
Kevin Whateley records a more contracted range of emotions but succeeds in presenting a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the paedophilic Peck, particularly in the scene where he is spurned by his nearly adult niece.
A three-strong chorus support the two leads, bustling round the stage assuming the roles of miscellaneous family members, friends and stage-hands. The script allows these actors some meaty cameos, particularly for Jenny Galloway who plays L il Bit s drunken mother and Peck s not-so-blind wife.
Vogel s metaphor comparing driving to sexual experience is a strong and ironic one. The car is the only thing that grants these weak individuals the power and freedom they crave; and it is also the scene and symbol of the crimes they ve committed.
A clever script indeed (in spite of the politically correct-sounding conclusions) - but does it deserve the devotion and weight of accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, heaped upon it? I think not. Ultimately, How I Learned to Drive might prove more cult than classic.