CW: references to pornography, sexual anxiety, vaginismus
British people are horrible at talking about sex. And that’s before you get to the trickier practical realities of STIs, physical complications, and sex-related psychological disorders. We are terrible at talking about this stuff. Period. And we don’t talk about those either.
Skin A Cat immediately comes in hard with this truth, and spends a good hour following one young woman’s attempts to understand and articulate her own sexuality. Alana (Millie Tupper) begins her ‘sexual odyssey’ as a curious teenage girl, whose early sexual encounters are overshadowed by her (as yet) undiagnosed vaginismus: a condition that makes vaginal penetration incredibly painful for her. All the same needs and pressures still exist for Alana—like a lot of teenagers, she’s eagerly pursuing sexual partners and experiences—but simmering underneath is always the question of what exactly could be ‘wrong’ with her.
What that description does not disclose is just how hilarious this play is. It’s filled to the brim with jokes and visual gags that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, without undermining the serious implications of the play’s topic. For me, the next most exciting thing about the writing was its mundanity: tampons, porn and intrusive gynecological exams all featured in their glaring normality, but it was refreshing to see all of these displayed so frankly and unabashedly onstage. Some deft decisions from the directors (Kitty Low and Martha West) saw limited props and costumes used creatively, and often very amusingly – in particular, there are a brilliant couple of water-bottle scenes. Also, using Alana’s bed as the pivotal centre-piece of the play kept the action grounded on the issue at hand, and served well as a constant reminder of her lurking insecurity.
The cast of five was strong: Millie Tupper’s ace comic timing made for a very endearing Alana, and it must be said that she is blessed with a lovely voice. The other four actors each took on multiple roles, some more outrageously caricatured than others, but all very well-performed and entertaining. Martha West and Harold Serero both did justice to some particularly ridiculous love-interests and over-zealous friends, whilst Martha Harlan and Hannah Taylor brought out the delicate and sympathetic sides of two important characters who had both, arguably, let Alana down. Another thing that struck me was the cast’s apparent comfort with performing even some of the most uncomfortable scenes. Both sexual and emotional climaxes were handled confidently but tenderly by all the actors, who didn’t shy away from the script’s explicit or intense moments.
The play isn’t really all about sex. I mean it is a LOT about sex, don’t get me wrong. But Skin A Cat also follows a woman’s investigation of who she is, what she wants, and what she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. More generally, it’s about asking for help, learning to be vulnerable, and embracing difference. We could all learn a thing or two from this charming number, and whether you can personally relate or not, I’d be very surprised if you don’t leave Skin A Cat feeling pretty satisfied.