The Life and Times of Fanny Hill. Bristol Old Vic Theatre

How many times do you get it a night? Five times? Six? Seven? Or more? The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is a busty, sexy and heavily petti-coated madam of a drama that gives lots of sex for a shilling a time – without revealing much. No boobs, only a glimpse of a bum, and despite all the talk, no willies and no pubic hair. A play about sex, without any sex. Instead sex is talked about, symbolised, spoofed and sent up.

We are back in 1748 London where cheap gin is the drink, children starve on the street and men can have sex in unregulated brothels where female sex workers were treated as sex machines. And as for under age sex… well it appears by the age of 16 prostitutes are old timers. It’s Georgian England in all its dirty breeches and soiled skirts.

Bristol Old Vic’s recreation of John Cleland’s epistolary story isn’t exactly flacid but it doesn’t quite achieve a fully erect version of the notoriously naughty novel. The acting is excellent, the staging superb and the production values first rate. It’s just the story that goes a little floppy. The original novel of the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is reimagined for the stage by April de Angelis. The rambling narrative is condensed and repackaged into a two hour drama by de Angelis but unfortunately she reinvents it into an equally rambling and confusing story.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
The Life and Times of Fanny Hill

Instead of hanging the story around Fanny’s love affair with Charles, or even Fanny’s carnal education, this adaption is about a Fanny who uses the articulate prose that flows out of the mouth of Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth) in order to create a saucy book for a bullying publisher played with a dead pan sinister relish by Mawgan Gyles. She refuses to give up the copyright and the question of intellectual ownership is a running theme throughout the play. Is it a story of moral downfall and degradation, a copyright battle, or a narrative of how men dominate women, or indeed of how Fanny manages to turn the tables on her male clients using humour and ridicule? Well, all of these and that’s the reason for a sense of clutter.

The novel’s noted pornographic prose are treated with a theatrical creativeness that manages not to shock, disgust or repel. Director Michael Oakley produces an entertaining show, with excellent movement and choreography, lots of fabulous wigs and gowns, vast amounts of dialogue, and some theatrical gems including the ‘swinging from the chandeliers’ scene. And along the way as Fanny notes: there are enjoyable alliterations, metaphors and examples of onomatopoeia.

Caroline Quintin is commanding (and surprisingly athletic) in a corset as Fanny, as she spills out her story of how an innocent country girl is corrupted into a life of prostitution. She dominates the stage with a strong and evocative singing voice for the play’s unexpected musical sequences. Frankly, I’d have liked more of this aspect of the drama.

Fanny’s recollections are voiced through the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Welsh accented Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth) who plays the young come-hither Fanny, while Phoebe Thomas convinced as the seen-it-done-it-and-got-the-corset Louisa. Nick Barber as the disgusting and yet engaging Dingle and Rosalind Steele as Fiddle completed the cast.

It’s fun, it’s enjoyably smutty, but fails to create the orgasm it promises.

Harry Mottam

Four Stars

The play continues to March 7, 2015.

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