‘Extraordinary’. Its not a word that is in use very often in my vocabulary. But this was the word that seemed to be the right one for me to sum up ‘The Life & Times of Fanny Hill’, which I watched at the Bristol Old Vic last night.
Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis from John Cleland’s infamous 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the show is directed by Michael Oakley and stars Caroline Quentin. We are told the tale of Fanny Hill, a prostitute who is charged with writing her memoirs for a princely sum by an outwardly respectable but inwardly lustful benefactor. Struggling to get her creative juices flowing, she enlists the help of two younger women named Louisa and Swallow who act out, recreate and reimagine Fanny’s colourful past experiences.
Fanny Hill was everything I expected it to be, in that it was bawdy, raunchy, laden with innuendo and funny. I couldn’t belly laugh about it though, as I always had in the back of my mind that we were watching women who were not always in the position of sexual power that they were trying to portray, who were often quite powerless and at times vulnerable. But that leads me on to the elements of the show that made me sum it up with the word ‘extraordinary’. I liked the first half. I didn’t love it. It was funny, engaging, titillating. But I felt like something was missing, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then the second half came, with twists, more bawdiness, and real emotion that had me and some of my female companions actually sobbing. I felt guilty for not giving these women more credence in the first half, for being more interested in the naughtiness than the real women and their stories who existed behind all the debauchery. Both parts made sense together, and turned this into a well rounded, interesting and thought provoking tale. I know that myself and at least one of my companions found a character we could relate to better than others, and it was probably a different character for each of us, as we were all bringing our own sexual and life experiences to our view of the show. Maybe the characters reminded us of a more extreme version of bits of ourselves. Maybe they shone a torch into some darker, more unfulfilled and lesser explored aspects of ourselves. Or maybe they reminded us of just how lucky we are, and how good we have got it.
Quentin was wonderful in the role of Fanny, with a heaving bosom to be spectacularly proud of and a sparkling star quality. The standout memorable scene with Quentin involved some of the most gymnastic cunnilingus I’ve seen and the creative use of a chandelier that has had me eyeing up my own light fittings throughout the evening! Superbly supported by Phoebe Thomas, Gwyneth Keyworth, Rosalind Steele, Nick Barber and Mawgan Gyles, each bringing their own wit, humour, sexiness and occasional tenderness to the show. The live music played was composed by Bellowhead’s Pete Flood and performed by Steele as the overlooked musician Fiddle. We never get to hear her story, even though she tries to offer it up to Fanny who promptly shoots her down. Although I initially dismissed her too, strangely she is the character I am thinking about the most as I am writing this. She didn’t have a voice in this story of love, lust, fulfilment, pleasure, pain and sadness, and maybe that is the saddest thing of all.
Would I see it again? Well, actually, yes I would and yes I am going to. My tickets are booked, and this time I am going to take my man with me. I want us to see it together, and then I can unpick it and experience it again, find out what he thinks of it and how that impacts on my thoughts and feelings. We are going to be in the second row from this stage this time, so I won’t be left feeling quite as disappointed that I left my glasses at home for this performance, particularly during the chandelier scene…
‘The Life & Times of Fanny Hill’ is on at the Bristol Old Vic until March 7th 2015.
Review written by Karen Blake