There is something ingrained in the English cultural mentality to unfailingly find bawdy humour really amusing. Perhaps this is because we are hopelessly aware of our failure to ever be a sexy nation like France and so thankfully retreat into school boy sniggers at the first opportunity. Or, it is because on an island beset by grey fog and pelting rain, the idea of taking your clothes off and enjoying it is always faintly laughable.
Either way, the continued success of Mrs. Brown’s Boys suggests that our collective sophistication remains low and our indulgence in Carry On-style jokes high. No surprises then that the Bristol Old Vic’s adaptation of John Cleland’s eighteenth century novel about the life of a prostitute elicited a level of laughter from its audience that went beyond the LOLs and into the LMAOs or even the ROTFLMAO frontiers (for those who like their texty acronyms).
And in many ways Michael Oakley’s production (especially the first half) is pretty funny. In the same way that The Inbetweeners is actually funny – indeed the word ‘clunge’ would have slotted in quite seamlessly to Caroline Quentin’s vocabulary. But as they say, one has to be in the mood for clunge and that is one of the crucial disclaimers of this type of production. It would be no good going to this if you were not in mood for retiring the stiff upper lip for the night. Equally, I imagine this could end up being a bit of a fail as a potential Valentine’s Day date night, particularly if you and your date are yet to have had sex.
Despite being predominantly a bawdy comedy, Fanny Hill is elevated out of the gutter largely due to the performance and presence of Caroline Quentin. As some remember from Jonathan Creek, Quentin is a particularly good swearer – better than Kim Sears, in fact – and this is important because there is nothing worse than witnessing someone unconvincingly try to fling and flick ‘fuck’ into a sentence without finesse. Similarly hearing someone try to add sex jokes into their repertoire when it so patently doesn’t come naturally is always deeply painful. Unluckily for all those middle-aged men who commented on Sears’ Australian Open expletives with their ‘helpful’ thoughts on correct conduct of young ladies and their speech patterns, there is now a whole lovely generation of women possessive of a sweary verbal dexterity to make Malcolm Tucker proud. Three cheers for the modern woman and all fans of Maddy Magellan, another great profanity-user!
However, to paint this show as being all about a raucous laugh is misleading. To begin with, we have the essential problem that the subject matter – prostitution and poverty – is now widely accepted as being pretty damn un-funny (the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial hasn’t produced many giggles), so in order to enjoy this production the audience is to some degree already made to put aside their liberal educations. Despite this, it is hard not to notice the fact that for the entire first half the play makes almost no illusions to any of the nastier realities of prostitution, but then BOOM in the second half we suddenly get tragic realities and social commentary all bundled up together and – strangely for a comedy that we had let ourselves relax into – a rather down-beat ending that likely robbed Quentin and the cast of a more enthusiastic curtain call. This gives the play an ‘it was the best of times; it was the worst of times’ division which is too jarring. Instead the plot and the humour might have sustained better had it been made drier and more varied by combining the slap-stick blow jobs with the piquant social commentary throughout the production. A drier edge to the production could have provided the necessary grit to allow the play to transcend the ‘nothing is really funny for longer than 90 minutes’ rule.
Near the end of the production Fanny Hill comments that readers do not want to hear sordid sob stories of lonely pregnancies and drowned babies, they want a hard on. The idea behind the change in tone of the second half is presumably to show a chronological change in attitudes towards promiscuity in the late 1700s. However, what is interesting is how little has changed. The most famous recent tale of prostitution has been Brooke Magnanti’s Belle de Jour, a character and story heavily – and rightly – criticised for making prostitution seem like the thinking woman’s choice for funding post-graduate education, rather than the deeply sad actions of those locked in the depths of poverty and, often, addiction. But as Fanny says, that’s a story most people don’t want to think about.