Isley Lynn's Skin A Cat is a pivotal piece of contemporary theatre, a piece about sexual self-acceptance. It's a five-star show for Theatre Editor Daniel Perks:

Vaginismus – an involuntary muscle spasm that renders any kind of vaginal penetration painful or impossible. A manageable condition, it requires both psychological and physical treatment to strengthen the muscles and allow them to relax. It is by no means a death sentence.

For a teenage girl, it is the end of the world. How is Alana (Lydia Larson) supposed to lose her virginity, discover her sexual preferences, figure out the minefield of intercourse if she feels like a freak whenever she tries to masturbate, or insert a tampon? Insert anything for that matter.

If only Alana were able to watch Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat. If only she were able to understand that being different is ok, that having sex as a teenager is something all the kids brag about doing but few ever follow through on. If only every pre-teen were able to see this play and understand that all bodies should be celebrated for their quirks, not ostracised because of them. Not everyone looks like a porn star, nor should they want to.

And every individual would be instantly struck by the power of Lynn’s dialogue, such is her understanding of real problems and real-life language. On hand to enhance each of these elements is Blythe Stewart, a director perfectly in tune with the nuances of Skin A Cat’s script. Stewart’s vision puts the actors in nude suits, exposed but not quite naked. She centres each scene around the bed, one of many devices that magnifies every awkward emotion – shame, laughter, joy. At least for the audience, if not for Alana herself.

Because Alana can’t tell anyone about her condition, not even her best friends – two stellar performances by Libby Rodliffe and Joe Eyre, who perfectly inhabit a multitude of characters. Apparently, vaginismus is a dirty little secret, like the fact that a woman can enjoy anal sex. Larson’s performance effortlessly captures the inner shame, the blame that Lynn’s central character places upon herself. And when she resolves to cure her undiagnosed illness by removing her ability to consent to sex, a silence descends over the theatre. The implication is left unsaid but the level of self-loathing that makes such an outrageous suggestion a plausible possibility is impactful enough. This psychosexual disease is dangerous to the extreme.

None of the Skin A Cat team shy away from the responsibility. First, the problem is presented and then a solution is explored. It’s a big ask to accomplish this without preaching, but Stewart’s production is more than up to the task.

How does it manage this? Through laughter. The kind of side-splitting laughter that brings tears to the eyes. The kind of belly laughter that has us gasping for breath. The kind of infectious laughter that bellows through the production, leaving emotionally exhausted spectators in its wake. Because as well as intense, purposeful and poignant, Lynn’s writing is also very, very funny. It’s that precisely balanced.

But it’s not enough to have a well-written piece of comedy. Skin A Cat requires an expert actor who can judge the room and deliver her part with microscopic precision. Enter Larson. She speaks quickly, but her stream of consciousness is so well phrased and nuanced that every inflection is picked up on, every tiny detail of Lynn’s complex script is given the emphasis it deserves. It feels natural too, a one-sided conversation between a teenager and the mirror, or two best friends who have known each other so long they have their own coded shorthand.

It would be easy to assume that this show is a dark comedy. In many ways it is. But for those who can’t empathise with the condition from which Alana suffers, there is a far deeper connection in Skin A Cat for which anyone can relate. With the help of an older gallery curator (an intentionally wanky yet selfless performance by Eyre), Alana learns to manage her condition. And she ends this astonishing production with a revelatory therapy session:

Society still defines womanhood through penetration. Manhood too.

But everyone’s sexual preferences are different. And they are all equally valid.

This may sound obvious. But for a woman who has grown up presuming she is defective, for a young boy hearing his friends boast about their sexual conquests, for a child trying to understand and accept their sexual orientation, it’s worth stating.

And re-stating. It’s worth shouting from the rooftops.

Because it takes Alana years to realise that she isn’t wrong for having vaginismus or broken because she started menstruating at nine. It takes us all years to understand that our differences are what make us interesting, not the extent to which we conform.

Skin A Cat is a play about a manageable condition. It’s a play about the world starting, not ending. It’s laughter and sorrow wrapped up in the same set of tears. And it’s a pivotal piece of contemporary theatre.

 

 

★★★★★

Skin A Cat runs at Assembly Rooms as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 until 25 August 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.