Adapted by April de Angelis, much of the novel is recounted on stage, as an older Fanny (Caroline Quentin) is asked to write her memoirs. Realising that readers “do not want the sordid stink of poverty, they want a hard-on,” Fanny sets to work telling a fantasy tale with the help of Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth), Louisa (Phoebe Thomas) and Fiddle (Rosalind Steele).
What the audience get is a bawdy, fun-filled romp through the world of prostitution in eighteenth century London. The show moves quickly, with lots of laughs throughout. As Caroline Quentin herself puts it “It’s not explicit, but it is very, very rude.”
That is perhaps what makes this show so enjoyable, it is naughty and makes you want to giggle, rather than being out to shock or disgust. The list of euphemisms for the male anatomy would be too long to even begin to recount, and each one seems even more outrageous and hilarious than the one before, especially when the descriptive passage is then put into layman terms. “The broad and blueish-cast incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins…it stood an object of terror and delight,” Louisa declares, and then young Fanny excitedly shrieks that “he produced his willy.”
There is a strong feminist theme, as one might expect, and it is heartening to see; especially as the play draws to a close when you realise just how much these women care for each other.
The cast of six is strong, and each brings something different and unique to the stage. Caroline Quentin is excellent in the title role, fun, flirtatious, sharp and savvy. She slides in and out of different characters with a practised ease and really shows an audience her talents. Speaking of, I need a corset like that.
Music is an integral part of the show, Rosalind Steele deserves special mention as an exceptionally talented musician, and the whole cast sing together beautifully.
For me, it is the young Gwyneth Keyworth who steals the show though, as Swallow, or a younger Fanny. Her performance is sweetly naive, and yet all-knowing. Her final scene on stage, which I will not spoil, is heartbreakingly tragic, and makes you draw up short after the raucousness of the last two hours.
I loved the speed of the play; the fun and fancy free nature, particularly the bed chamber scene in act one, with a butt naked, masked punter at the merciless hands of Fanny, who (literally) gives him the ride of his life.
The biggest let down was the ending. Things come crashing to a sudden halt, as Louisa is tempted away by the church in order to save her soul, Swallow tells us her tale and we gradually realise that for all the fun and laughter, it is a sordid, desperate and dangerous world in which Fanny lives.
All of it is really well played, but there were several natural ending points for me, and I was sad that it seemed to almost limp to a close. What a shame, that such a brilliant piece of theatre was let down by the final few minutes.