SKIN A CAT, Vaults Festival - Review

One of the joys in reviewing fringe theatre is coming across up-and-coming talent and championing their work. When there's a lot of good theatre around, this can lead to having new 'favourite' writers every week. This week, my new 'writer to watch' is Isly Lynn. She's been around for some time and had her work performed at most of the mainstream and 'big' fringe venues that you can think of, but for the life of me I've no idea why her plays haven't been on my radar until now. Lynn's Skin A Cat is the first show I've seen at the Vaults Festival in Waterloo this year and I have to say that the rest of the plays there have their work cut out to tick all the boxes like this play does.

Directed by Blythe Stewart, Skin A Cat is a three-hander featuring Alana (Lydia Larson) from whose point of view we observe this sexual odyssey. Sharing the stage with her are Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia who between them play all the pertinent female and male relationships in her life.

Starting at nine-years-old when she has her first period while on holiday, we trace Alana's troubled relationship with her vagina. The first time that she attempts to insert a tampon isn't pain-free, as is the first time she tries to have conventional sex. For the next 10 years, Alana has partners who are 'understanding' to a point, with plenty of foreplay and non-vaginal sex. Over time, however, 'not doing what everyone else does' becomes a sticking point. Then two key figures change her life forever – an older man who shows near limitless patience with her, and a medical professional, who not only pinpoints the source of her physical discomfort, but also gives her food for thought about what she wants out of sex...

While the play is very frank in its discussion and depiction of sex, it is never 'titillating' and always emotionally truthful. While scanning the audience at certain points, it was good to see both men and women laugh and make noises of recognition as they recalled sex and 'those conversations' as they're really like, rather than how they're depicted on TV or on the movies. Lynn's attention to detail also encompasses the smaller things of yesteryear such as the old phones that truncated texts because of limits on characters. It is this attention to detail in her characters and their world that makes her writing so rich and her characters so easy to identify with.

I'm hesitant to make comparisons to other works of 'art' or media, but if I had to, in terms of tone and candour, then Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Skins, Teeth, Mark O'Brien's The Sessions and Judy Blume's canon springs to mind.

Stewart as director has done a fantastic job in keeping Alana's emotional journey front and centre of everything, regardless of the many characters that come and go throughout the play. A special mention should also be made about all the cast, without whom (as clichéd as it is to say) this chronicle wouldn't have been possible. Vulnerable yet intrepid performances that produced magic.

Like all the best writing, you do wonder how much, if any, of the play is based on Lynn's own experiences. Surely no one could just 'fabricate' this... Because of the quality of the show, I have every confidence it will be around again in the future. In the meantime, Skin A Cat only runs until this Sunday (31st January), so do go to see it if you can.

© Michael Davis 2016

Skin A Cat runs at the Vaults Festival until 31st January 2016.

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