A crane, giant crates. Foggy docklands, two hundred years ago. Foppishly approving Britain’s mercantile culture, Voltaire coos “You are so moderne!” Up pops Caroline Quentin, a Fanny Hill past her best and on her uppers, offering to scratch his itch. The Frenchman flees. She grumbles that customers are getting fussy (“You don’t need teeth to -“). Thus we are launched into April de Angelis’ unexpected version of John Cleland’s 1748 fictional memoir of “A Woman Of Pleasure”, directed with elegant mischievous glee by Michael Oakley.

What does a modern woman and innovative theatre want with this notorious 18c porn? The ultimate male fantasy of a tart besotted with her “amorous adventures”?  In an age of even more vicious commodification of women’s bodies, what can it give us? Absolute f——ing delight, thats what. Here’s a nonpareil of subtle feminism, a humane revisionism of pornified sexual politics. It is so rich in womanly scornfulness that at times I feared for the men at the matinee, surrounded by female hilarity.  Certainly the most raunchy depiction of a rampant phallus is given to a female forearm with a stocking on it, filched from the cowering bare leg of the nearest bloke.

De Angelis’ structure has old Fanny accosted by Spark, a Cleland figure (Mawgan Gyles) , who reckons there’s money in a book. But Fanny can remember little beyond “a blur of bedpans and blokes buttoning up”. So she recruits two younger tarts, the cynical Louisa (Phoebe Thomas ) and the demure little Swallow (a fabulous breakthrough by young Gwyneth Keyworth) . They act out her fantasy story, assisted by the mercilessly bulled Mr Dingle (Nick Barber), who is hanging round the docks after losing his money in shipping. Barber, who plays a series of clients, deserves a prize for willing abasement: the urgent absurdity of male desire has rarely been so pitilessly evoked.

So as Quentin scribbles, directs and plays various Madams, Swallow romanticizes and Louisa wearily cooperates. It is very, very funny at times: the author gleefully expands on Cleland’s terrible euphemisms for body parts – the “Sweet seat of exquisite sensation” having “sparks of desire tossed onto its kindling” as it accepts the “beloved guest, the love-truncheon, the Essential Specific” . There are assorted absurd alliterations of erotic execution (dammit, it’s catching). For as Fanny herself says exapseratedly of her ‘mincing metaphors” , repetition is inevitable. “Words like joys, ardour, ecstasies, flatten like an old mattress”.

Any fear that the play would do the same is unfounded. Hilarious as it is  to see Quentin deploying matter-of-fact matronliness as she ducks and dives round the edges of acceptability and makes the guys wriggle, the play is threaded through with solid sadness, thanks to Rosalind Steele’s onstage fiddle and pipe and the cast’s breaks into broadsheet ballads. And in the second act, after a remarkably choreographed marching-chanting-heaving orgy, the exploitative male ‘author’ reappears to meet the darker eroticism of Quentin going at him with a rope and stick and real anger. And when both her girl-puppets refuse to cooperate in the fantasy of the happy hooker , up come the real unmentionables. Rural starvation driving girls to city streets, pox, infanticide, hangings. And what seemed a retro romp delivers, sharply, the most topical of messages to our own trafficking, twerking, phone-porn century. Women are not toys for sale.

box office 0117 987 7877 to 7 March
rating: four 4 Meece Rating


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