views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Skin A Cat
The Vaults
28th January 2016


Jessica Clark, Lydia Larson and Jassa Ahluwalia in Skin A Cat

Photography © Richard Lakos

Trying to find your way in the world when you're awash with strange hormones means that for almost all girls, puberty inevitably involves a certain amount of backstabbing and bitchiness. Betraying others and being betrayed is compulsory as we learn how to transition between cute little girls with bows in our hair to responsible adults with jobs, mortgages and a whole host of other grown up problems. Coming of age is hard, and for Alana (Lydia Larson), it's exacerbated by her own body letting her down. Although she is ready to go all the way, her body says no every time. Her boyfriend is frustrated, more importantly she's frustrated, and it doesn't seem like her version of normal is ever going to change. Are these feelings of despair and inadequacy really as good as it gets?

Skin A Cat details Alana's journey into womanhood, from her first period to clumsy sexual encounters. Whilst it's clear that playwright Isley Lynn has chosen the dialogue carefully to ramp up the comedy in places and tug at our heartstrings in others, we don't feel manipulated by the writing. Instead, there's an overwhelming sense of honesty throughout the dialogue, with visceral, almost brutal and so very relatable descriptions. Alana's horror at inspecting her knickers may be played for laughs by director Blythe Stewart, however the language is unflinchingly truthful. Possibly too much information for the men in the audience, yet guaranteed to prompt laughs of recognition from the women.

The focus of designer Holly Pigott's simple set is a divan bed, adorned in mismatched old linen in varying shades of beige, with this drabness reflected in Alana's own clothing. She wears tights, a cami top, granny pants, all in flesh and neutral colours. Walking around on stage in her underwear doesn't shock in itself, but it underlines her vulnerability. We know from her interactions with the other characters that she's actually fully dressed, so this is an outward projection of how she perceives herself. Stripped-back, plain, and ordinary. It's obvious Alana doesn't see herself as anyone special and the more time we spend with her and get to know her, the more upsetting that is. Larson portrays Alana as a thoroughly likeable, warm and open person, haunted by what she thinks are her imperfections.

To both sides of the bed are Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, who play all the female and male characters in Alana's story, stepping forward as and when required and dipping in and out part of Alana's world. Her mother, her friends, her boyfriends, her doctor - they navigate a number of characters, primarily with broad strokes of humour and also compassion. Clark and Ahluwalia are both dressed androgynously in blue dungarees, giving a splash of colour to the set. The microphones are unnecessary, they both project well and the amplification doesn't fit with the intimate nature of the production. There's an ever-shifting tone, but Stewart ensures the ups and downs in Alana's tale come across as natural. Whilst the action does admittedly slow down in the final third, the play feels the right length at 90 minutes straight through.

Although parts of this play do veer into very personal, medical and gory territory, that's necessary background to the plot rather than its focus and the content never feels uncomfortable. Skin A Cat is a coming of age tale about the struggle to discover your own identity, to make it through those cringe-inducing teenage years and the challenge of accepting the person you actually are, as opposed to the one you wish you were. It's a hugely relatable and refreshingly honest piece which bravely tackles sexual dysfunction with both sensitivity and humour.

Skin A Cat opened on 27th January and runs until 31st January 2016 at The Vaults, as part of the VAULT Festival.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee)

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