How I Learned to Drive (Southwark Playhouse)

Olivia Poulet stars in Paula Vogel’s award-winning study of sexual abuse

Life lessons: William Ellis and Olivia Poulet in How I Learned to Drive
Life lessons: William Ellis and Olivia Poulet in How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel's 1997 Pultizer Prize-winning play introduces us to a truly vile family living in 1960s Maryland.

Alarm bells ring when we discover they all have nicknames based on their genitalia – the teenaged daugher is Li'l Bit, her grandfather is Big Daddy and her 40-something uncle has the aptly creepy moniker of Peck.

The play explores the abusive relationship between Peck and Li'l Bit over a number of years, cannily serving the key scenes in reverse chronological order. This means the abuse grows more disturbing as the play progresses, building to the first instance of impropriety during a driving lesson when Li'l Bit is just 11.

The use of driving lessons as an analogy for Li'l Bit's dark journey is an effective one, and enables her uncle to combine his two passions in life; his car and his niece (a passion which started, he disturbingly reveals, when she was a newborn baby).

Victim-blame is a constant undercurrent of Vogel's script, reaching its ugliest moment when L'il Bit's mother (Holly Hayes) warns her that should anything happen between her and Peck – who she knows harbours inappropriate feelings – she will hold her daughter responsible. In an age of Savile et al such sentiments point to why these crimes often go unreported for so long.

In a stand-out performance Olivia Poulet skilfully evokes L'il Bit's slow and painful awakening over a period of nearly three decades, while subtly suggesting her complicity in the relationship. William Ellis, although a shade too young for Peck, evades the predatory peadophile stereotype and instead gives us a broken man who genuinely believes himself to be in love, climaxing in a desperate declaration in a seedy motel.

Jack Sain's production, played out on Katharine Heath's expansive set with two car seats at its centre, takes a light touch with the heavy subject matter and features a neatly incorporated soundscape and visuals. The choppy chronology means the story takes time to build momentum, but once it has you in its grip it doesn't let go. This is provocative, prescient drama.