Fanny at the Watermill Theatre – review

The world premiere production runs until 15 June

Charlie Russell in a scene from Fanny at the Watermill Theatre
Charlie Russell in Fanny, © Pamela Raith

Hamburg, 3 February 1809. A son, Felix, is born to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, a brother for Fanny.

The couple went on to have two more children. F and F Mendelssohn both proved to be exceptionally gifted musicians.

When Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn chose names for their firstborn daughter and son Fanny and Felix, they could scarcely have predicted that their initials could have given rise to enough confusion to inspire a musical farce over 200 years later.

Happily, writer Calum Finlay and creative associate Charlie Russell, who brings sparkle and musical knowledge to the title role, have produced a wonderfully witty and well-informed delight, earthy and elegant by turn.

David Howe’s lighting sheds sunlight streaming through the windows of Sophia Pardon’s tasteful, period drawing-room set. Thanks to the team of Finlay and Russell, credible light is also shed on the ramifications of the confusion between F and F Mendelssohn, especially in the case of a piece called “Italien”. This proves such a favourite with Queen Victoria that she requests a private performance at the Palace, played by composer F Mendelssohn in person!

Fanny’s determination to make it to the Palace to meet the Queen is the meat of the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ (I quote Shakespeare advisedly, for he is often referenced by the dramatis personae here).

The opening scene has Russell’s Fanny, exquisite in one of a series of Pardon’s decorous gowns, authentically and authoritatively giving informed conductor/composer’s rehearsal notes to an unseen orchestra.

We soon discover that her mother Lea (magnificently dominating Kim Ismay) is in tune with her times as a woman who purports to know her place and wishes her daughter did too – though of course she, Lea, does actually rule the roost.

That roost includes an inept and clumsy younger brother Paul, who has a habit of eavesdropping at doors, where he is inevitably discovered – a great running joke, played with terrific physicality and timing by Harry Kershaw. He also gets to play a series of more ribald characters, including a ferryman who delights in holding forth in rhyming slang.

Fanny has a suitor, George Howard’s ardent, intelligent Wilhelm, and – another inspired idea – a bestie and confidante, Jade May Lin’s Clara Schumann, suffering the similar fate of being overshadowed as a composer by her husband Robert Schumann.

Corey Montague Sholay and Charlie Russell in a scene from Fanny at the Watermill Theatre
Corey Montague Sholay and Charlie Russell in Fanny, © Pamela Raith

And what of the other F Mendelssohn? Older brother Felix is clever and distinguished thanks to Corey Montague Sholay’s performance, especially when seated at the grand piano centre stage.

There is plenty of action as Fanny decides she will meet the Queen and dons male attire to get to London, accompanied by Clara.

All this is expertly marshalled – conducted I should perhaps say – by director Katie-Ann McDonough and musical director and composer Yshani Perinpanayagam.

To discover whether Fanny succeeds in ‘going up to London to see the Queen’ (yes, that’s your reviewer quoting again, this time A A Milne), catch this while you can – a warm, funny, life-enhancing and eye-opening musical comedy. I do hope the Watermill can arrange a well-deserved afterlife.