The Life and Times of Fanny Hill (Bristol Old Vic) – Caroline Quentin oozes star quality

Caroline Quentin leads the cast of April De Angelis’s play

Caroline Quentin as Fanny Hill
Caroline Quentin as Fanny Hill
© Helen Maybanks

In John Cleland’s novel, Fanny Hill lives a life of pornographic debauchery and then finds a happy ending of fortune and marriage. From the moment Caroline Quentin‘s Fanny pops head first out of a box (no pun intended), struggling to drag herself out, it's clear that April de Angelis's play is going to be slightly revisionist.

It’s an interesting tactic to make what many consider to be the first English pornographic novel into a feminist tract. Of course Cleland’s novel is pure fantasy but then so is De Angelis's work. For where the original sees nothing but pleasure and ecstasy in the work, here it is all pain and misery, where men rule the roost and women always come out second best. Through the course of history this undoubtedly has been true but it feels so obvious in the writing here, a few more shades would make it more interesting as art and wouldn’t have made the political argument any less comprehensive.

Outside of its raunch, there is little that marks Cleland’s novel as great and the same applies to the play. One of the best things about reading the novel is that Cleland never paints the picture of intimacy in graphic terms, which leads to some delicious metaphors and insinuations. De Angelis hits hard on the 'fuck' and the gritty realism of the act and yet it feels cheap in comparison to Cleland’s prose. This may be her point, to contrast the fantasy from the reality, but it feels less.

There is fun to be had however. There is no better theatre in the country than Bristol Old Vic for these Restoration romps and director Michael Oakley and cast provide some witty staging for the nine different sexual interludes, including most memorably an unruly 'cock sock' and a naked bum hovering inches from Quentin’s game face.

It’s a delight to have her taking on such a leading role. We are so used to seeing her produce good work in supporting roles; here she has a production that is built around her and she doesn't disappoint. Her presence, timing and mannerisms ooze star quality, and she looks fantastic in Andrew D Edwards's costumes, all grande dame gone to seed, a heaving bosom always on the verge of falling out of her too tight bodice and a beauty spot peeking forlornly from her cheek.

There is game support from the rest of the cast where Gwyneth Keyworth and Phoebe Thomas make particular impressions but both production and play struggle to blend the two acts; the first is light, stylish and empty, the second full of ideology but stodgy. Worth revisiting? Well maybe just for a quickie.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill runs at Bristol Old Vic until 7 March 2015