TheatreState’s pared down, sharpened up of reboot of this show starts with a game of ” I have never”. Two female friends solicit mute, vodka-lemonade sipping confessions from the audience and from each other . The questions that start innocuous – Tess has never read John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, the salacious “diary” of an eighteenth century woman of pleasure – but grow injurous – she’s sold the pleasure of her feet’s company to foot fetishists while living in New York. What follows splices the two narratives, one cutesily artificial, one all too real, together in a fun, messily thought-provoking examination of the taboos and values weighing on female friendship and sexuality.
Cleland’s 1748 novel scurrilously flirts with good taste and moral judgement, pitying its orphaned protagonist, only to discard it and her utterly into a largely cheerful romp through a bawdy, colourful demi-monde – succeeded, of course, by an eventual tearful repentance.
A harsh voice-over splits it into chapters, splicing it with Tess Seddon’s real life story. It has just as many twists and turns, but no such power to titillate. She graduates from studying drama and moves back in with her parents in Yorkshire, embarking on a grim mid-recession job-hunt and a still grimmer temp receptionist role, where she’s forced into a mustard trouser suit they dig out of a cupboard. Then, she moves to New York to do an unpaid internship with a theatre company, and is pushed out of her boyfriend’s aunt’s house by her Speedo-clad, much younger lover.
There are moments of autonomy in her story, but many more of coercion, by dominating economic factors and people around her. This strand is emphasised by the fact that she’s rarely allowed to finish her narratives before the next chapter is announced. Her co-director Cheryl Gallacher also interrupts, bubbling over with toddlerish enthusiasm. She’s reading, and becoming, Fanny Hill, playing this eighteenth century courtesan as a schoolgirl fantasy come cheesecake pin-up in frills.
It’s fascinating to see Cheryl and Tess’s dynamic evolve from a friendship — if one which extrovert Cheryl maintains with little digs at her friend’s inability to dance, or her sexual history – into a bizarre rivalry of competing narratives. At first the pair conspire to tell their stories, aided by props pulled from Cheryl’ s panniers. These hip pads under her 18th century wide hipped skirt furnish the sunglasses that transform her in Tess’s creepy landlord-by-proxy. At other points, the pair dance around in pink pyjamas and have a pillow fight, complete with a fan that blows white feathers over the stage. But as their narratives, the pair are less and less complicit in each other stories – and in a brutal, powerful echo of the pillowfight scene, Sheryl meets a new aggressor.
Jordan Eaton has been safely trapped behind a DJ booth so far; a man responsible for playing pop songs that view female sexuality through a disturbingly male lens, whether it’s the contrived, performative innocence of Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ – “hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” – or the darker mood of the Ying Yang Twins’s aggressive hiss of sexual threat. When he threatens, then replaces a cowering Sheryl to become a skirted, simpering parody of her joyous Fanny Hill, this production becomes genuinely unsettling.
This is a story of female sexuality trapped and silenced by these intruding male voices and interpretations – a girly sleepover shifted by mens’ gaze. But it’s more complicated, too, as it looks at this gaze’s more lucrative properties, and its ability to solve some problems even as others yawn open. TheatreState leave the audience to work out how, if at all, empowered Cheryl is by her new won New York earning power, or whether the tangled system of sexuality they interact with can be challenged or dismantled. It’s a mashed-up, artfully muddled pink cocktail of a provocation.