The Life and Times of Fanny Hill, Bristol Old Vic

review-Fanny3SINCE I often feel like a dinosaur, I don’t mind confessing that I remember when Fanny Hill was eventually published in 1970 and what a deliciously wicked thrill it was to read it. After DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the truly shocking Last Exit To Brooklyn, it was the most explicit book most of us had ever read – but unlike Last Exit it was witty and elegantly written and unlike Lady Chatterley it was not excruciatingly florid.

Playwright April de Angelis has already shown her feel for the lives of women on the edge of society in earlier centuries in Playhouse Creatures. Here she takes on the lives of “women of pleasure” in the 18th century, a period when the “sex industry” was at its height and it has been estimated that one in five women in London worked as prostitutes. (Yes, you read that right. Twenty per cent of the female population of the capital.)

John Cleland’s novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, is a work of titillating pornography, with endlessly inventive ways of describing the otherwise rather repetitive sexual anecdotes, but it actually tells the reader very little about Fanny as a person, or where she came from.

April de Angelis’ brilliance – combined with Caroline Quentin’s barnstorming performance – brings this character who has become a metaphor for sexual appetites to vivid and at times endearing life. We meet Fanny the person, or who she might have been and how she got to where she is.

review-fanny2This production, directed by Michael Oakley, who directed Playhouse Creatures at the Theatre on the Fly at Chichester, turns the book almost inside-out so that we see things through Fanny’s eyes. It’s a hard life and she lives it to the full. We see how a naive country girl (Gwyneth Keyworth) could be drawn through service to a “gentleman” into prostitution. We see how men of all classes and intellectual or moral pretensions use and abuse women whether they are kept mistresses, ladies of pleasure or whores. And we see how such women use their wits and their skills to survive in a world where the water is undrinkable, the gin polluted if not poisoned, the men pox-ridden, and everyone trying to turn a (dis)honest farthing or sovereign to survive.

review-fannyThe dazzlingly talented cast of six is headed by the versatile Caroline Quentin as the sexy, witty, arch and at times brutal Fanny, Phoebe Thomas as the experienced whore Louisa, Rosalind Steele as the fiddle-player who half-envies the other women their adventures and Mawgan Gyles and Nick Barber as all the men.

The movement is choreographed by Karla Shacklock around Andrew D Edwards’ flexible set which represents a bustling port city, with wooden boxes and crates of various sizes that open to be everything from a cellar to the dockside, a steamy brothel to a gentleman’s four-poster bed.

The music, cleverly referencing The Beggar’s Opera and 18th century street ballads is by Pete Flood of Bellowhead.

This is an ensemble piece in which the underbelly of an 18th century city is brought to life – the sort of noisy, rambunctious, drunken life that spilled onto the dockside streets outside the Old Vic when it first opened in 1766.

This hugely entertaining adaptation continues to 7th March – beg, steal or borrow a ticket for what is likely to be one of the most talked about productions of the year.


Photographs  by Helen Maybanks

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