Sunday 15 February 2015

Theatre Review: The Life & Times of Fanny Hill at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

You might think you know what to expect from The Life & Times of Fanny Hill, Lamplighter Theatre’s new adaptation of John Cleland’s notorious tale of a prostitute’s misadventures. The book is essentially an 18th century romp with a full variety of sexual escapades complete with bawdy jokes. So you could be confounded to find a set built around dockside crates and scaffolding, Caroline Quentin as our eponymous heroine clambering inelegantly out of a wooden box and nary a boudoir in sight.

That’s not to say the sex doesn't kick in quickly as Fanny is accosted by Spark (Mawgan Gyles), who has bought her old gambling debt and demands that she writes a saucy autobiography to pay it off. In April de Angelis’s new version, Fanny has a terrible memory and needs to recreate her past, with the help of the street-hardened Louisa (Phoebe Thomas) and youthful Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth), who turns out to have a rare talent for storytelling. They are joined in their quest by Dingle (Nick Barber)who acts out the majority of the, ahem, male parts while Fanny narrates, takes notes and intervenes in this picaresque reinvention of her own life.

It’s exuberantly funny and endearing stuff before the interval – even as you wonder where it’s all going and whether that matters.  Every sexual encounter - from Fanny’s lesbian initiation to a stocking stretched taut over an arm and clenched fist as a representation of manhood running riot – is magnificently recreated as a set piece. Movement becomes stylised, set to music based on traditional broadside ballads by Bellowhead’s Pete Flood and performed by the eager and versatile Fiddle (Rosalind Steele). The mood swerves beguilingly from the bare-bottomed rough and tumble of Fanny’s first full-bodied experience to the tenderness of her encounter, in Swallow’s searing re-enactment using an empty jacket, with the young gentleman Charles, who may be the love of her life.

Under Michael Oakley’s direction the tone turns distinctly darker in the second half, as the true cost of the street-walking women’s ribaldry becomes clear. Social and political themes are brought to the fore and, as the full extent of Louisa and Swallow’s misfortunes plays out, it seems as though the gaiety of the first half is long gone.

The overall tone may be uneven, but what’s incredibly refreshing in de Angelis’s writing, is that the women are in charge of exploring their own sexuality. Resisting the exploitation of others, Fanny dictates her own story and decides not to share its spoils with any man. Yet for her book to be read, she must always deliver the scurrilous rather than the square, sex rather than romance.  In today’s febrile Fifty Shades of Grey atmosphere, with women’s ownership of their own bodies still in question, this feels more relevant than ever.

Tight-fitting costumes and period wigs set the restoration tone delightfully and there are assured performances from the whole cast. Quentin is outstanding as the voluptuous Fanny, holding court with masterful comic timing and considerable ease. The Life &Times of Fanny Hill suits the historic space of Bristol Old Vic’s main stage perfectly, even though the original book was a sensation before the theatre was built. If, in the end, I was expecting more to pop out of designer Andrew D Edwards’s intriguing on-stage boxes, this doesn't detract from what is a raucous, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining evening. 

Runs until 7th March 2015. Photo Helen Maybanks. More information and tickets available on Bristol Old Vic's website 


  1. Jane Austen’s Mr.&Mrs. Cole owned brothels in Highbury & London a la Fanny Hill:

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