Behind even the most misguided shows, there is usually the nugget – however small – of a good idea. When I first saw The Fanny Hill Project in Edinburgh last year, the good idea at its heart was obscured by the messy, distracted production created around it. TheatreState had paired John Cleland’s erotic novel with the contemporary tale of co-director Tess Seddon’s experience as a model in a foot fetish club in New York, and from there departed into a sprawling exploration of women’s representation in the 21st century. As I wrote in my review at the time, “A feminist piece about modern representations of women is not short of targets, which is perhaps where TheatreState’s fierce but confused satire falls down”. The show had bags of ambition, but precious little focus.
The Fanny Hill Project v2.0, as TheatreState have cheekily christened it, is an impressive transformation, excavating the central idea of the original piece and making it into the show it always had the potential to be. Other than retaining its core concept, the show is unrecognisable, adopting an entirely new structure. Whereas the initial production was all over the place, its madcap scenes loosely strung together, here it has been honed down to its essentials and marshalled into a tight, effective framework. Shedding all the accessories that got in its way first time round, the show is now completely built around its twin narratives of two women – one 18th-century, one 21st-century – who end up selling their bodies.
This structure also allows Seddon and fellow performer and director Cheryl Gallacher to return to the spotlight, whereas previously they were hidden in the background or absent entirely. It’s a wise choice, as the pair have a compelling dynamic and an effortles way of inviting in their audience. In a fun little preamble, they coax us all into playing “I have never”, most beloved drinking game of eager-to-impress students. This quickly becomes a way of introducing Seddon’s shady past, which in this version – unlike before – she takes full ownership of. When Seddon first revealed this secret, she explains, Gallacher was desperate to make a show about it; in return, Seddon dug up Cleland’s novel and presented Gallacher with the challenge of Fanny Hill. There’s eye-rolling reluctance from both parties.
So the two women, Seddon as herself and Gallacher as Fanny, do battle in their attempts to tell their stories, while Jordan Eaton observes proceedings from behind a DJ booth at the back of the stage. Each chapter, linking together events in the lives of the two protagonists, is announced into the microphone by Eaton, wrenching away narrative control from the very people whose narratives are at stake. The quickfire sections are separated by a bell – ding! – with more than a hint of the boxing ring. Women here are repeatedly interrupted and sidetracked in the authoring of their lives, competitively pitted against one another while the audience problematically look on.
Performance is key. Thanks to the knowing structure and the winking self-awareness, we are constantly reminded that this – like the outfits the performers switch between – is all put on. When Seddon and Gallacher throw shapes to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, their moves fiercely mock the “sexy” tropes of contemporary music videos; the artificiality of pillow fight fantasies is gleefully pointed up by the use of a fan to scatter feathers into the air around the two giggling performers. And we begin to wonder whether “Tess” and “Cheryl” – the versions of themselves that the performers present on stage – are also carefully constructed performances. Is the appealing kookiness that they adopt just another role that women are expected to fulfil? (my Manic Pixie Dream Girl alarm starts to go off)
The Fanny Hill Project v2.0 still leaves questions unanswered, but now in a way that feels apt and intentional. The closing scene, rather than departing in bewilderment, leaves a powerfully bitter taste in the mouth. What if, TheatreState suggest, the only way of getting one’s voice heard as a woman in a casually misogynistic culture is to conform to the image that culture insidiously projects? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. It’s a troubling thought, and one that hangs in the air long after the feathers have fallen to the ground.