Interview: Penelope Skinner

JAKE ARNOTT’s scares children with up-and-coming playwright Penelope Skinner.

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In a crowded Costa, Britain’s most promising playwright is considering her thoughts on porn. Penelope Skinner, a waifish thirty-something in a cardie, hugs her knees as she contemplates my question. From the table behind her, a mother shoots me a dirty look.

‘I do feel strongly about porn, but I don’t feel simply about it… I think part of the influence of America is that we have this reassuring belief that all porn stars live in Beverly Hills and drive around in Porsches, but it’s just not like that, at least not in this country.’

The anxious mother shepherds her toddlers away. Skinner’s plays are not exactly family-friendly – her first success was a one-woman show in 2009 called Fucked. Pulling no punches, it told the dramatic decline of an intelligent young woman into lap-dancing, drug addiction and prostitution.

Her 2010 play Eigengrau also refuses to soften its messages. The play’s two pivotal scenes are shocking depictions of sexual manipulation where it’s hard to tell who’s at fault. Highlighting the effect of porn culture on cultural norms, a man receives a blow job he doesn’t want from a woman who thinks it’s the only way to make him love her.

Skinner is not afraid of bringing social critique into her work – but to her, it’s all about character. ‘In Eigengrau, what I was trying to explore was a kind of angry feminist, something I’d moved through at the time I wrote the play.’ I ask if she feels an affinity with the strident feminist Cassie, who, in one of the play’s most tense moments, is coerced into shaving her legs by a sexually embarrassed man. She laughs.

‘I think I feel affinity with all the characters – you use aspects of yourself in all of them’. A surprising statement about a play featuring a fat, unemployed man, a woman who goes insane, and, most notably, the misogynistic, manipulative marketing guy, Mark. She pauses. ‘Well, maybe not so much with Mark…’

‘The story tends to be driven by characters. I’m definitely interested in people.’ Despite her unflinching approach, Penelope Skinner is not an activist, and what comes across in her plays is a sense of horror at how much sharp, biting comedic observation can be drawn from normal people’s lives going disastrously wrong.

I mention the Cambridge production of Eigengrau. ‘I’m very excited about the Cambridge production of Eigengrau’ Skinner graciously responds. ‘It’s a great feeling – it’s such good fun when you realise that people get something from the play and want to do it.’

The past few years, and 2011 in particular, have seen Skinner’s career take off. Last year at the Royal Court her latest play, The Village Bike, was critically acclaimed and she was proclaimed the ‘Most Promising Playwright’ of 2011 by the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the George Devine Award. She also wrote an episode for Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat – after our interview she was heading to London for a plot-writing session on the second series.

Her interest in complex sexual politics has even made its mark in this Peep-Show-cum­-Inbetweeners comedy: in Skinner’s episode, JP (Jack Whitehall) wakes up with no memory of the night before and farcically comes to believe he has committed date-rape. With typical bold ruthlessness, Skinner mines this darkest of situations for every laugh it can get.

‘The thing about telly is there’s a different story-telling potential. I’m enjoying telling stories in a different media, and I have quite pop-culture influences anyway. I’m writing a pilot for a mystery series with my sister, and it’s really good fun.’ So will she be moving more into television in the future?

‘I guess so, a little. But doing something like Eigengrau – proper theatre – is totally amazing. I think when you have a good night at the theatre, it’s the best sort of entertainment there is.’

Eigengrau’ is on at Queen’s College Fitzpatrick Theatre, 6th-10th March (

The second series of ‘Fresh Meat’ is due to begin filming in May and set to be broadcast in September.