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Review: FANNY, Watermill Theatre

Mischief alum Charlie Russell shines in Calum Finlay's new comedy play

By: May. 31, 2024
Review: FANNY, Watermill Theatre  Image
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Review: FANNY, Watermill Theatre  ImageThere have been many pieces of theatre recently that have shone a light on the many ignored female figures in history who were overshadowed by their male counterparts. But what if they came from the same family? Calum Finlay explores this question in his new comedy play Fanny, named after the older sister of the famed German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

An equally as talented musical prodigy but forced to submit her work under her brother's name, including supposedly Queen Victoria's favourite piece Italien, Fanny decides to finally put her name out there and take Felix's place to compose and perform a concert piece at the Royal Palace in London.

Exploring the expected themes including systemic misogyny, arranged marriage and social status of its 19th century setting, Finlay choosing to make Fanny a comedy rather than a documentary of events keeps the play brisk and light-hearted with plenty of laughs stemming from its colourful cast and setpieces brilliantly directed by Katie-Ann McDonough. More importantly, it offers insight into Fanny's perspective. As the play switches to her head as she meticulously conducts her melodies, in part thanks to David Howe's lighting design, it's easy to understand her passion for the craft that drives the story. Once it ends, there's an air of sadness for what could have been had the events really happened.Review: FANNY, Watermill Theatre  Image

Act one restricts the action to the Mendelssohn's pastel coloured stately home adorned with paintings including a central one of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used to great comedic effect. It's not until act two when Sophia Pardon's creativity truly shines as barrels double for train carts and carriages during pulsating yet hilarious chase sequence, and a simple sheet can become a cargo ship's sails and backdrop for projections. It adds a sense of grandness to Fanny's adventure in the Watermill's intimate space. 

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Charlie Russell (The Play That Goes Wrong) is a leading force as Fanny. Fitting like a glove with a knowing smirk in the comedic scenes, including an extended act two sequence with audience participation, it's the moments where she shows inner fire and determination that stick with you. Involved in Fanny's creative process since its beginnings, Russell's admiration for Mendelssohn shines throughout as she creates a fully-rounded woman you empathise with . When she says "this audience has come for me" to Felix during the climax, truer words were never spoken.

Fellow Mischief alum Harry Kershaw is also a standout as the Mendelssohn's equally ignored brother Paul alongside bit parts including a lusty barfly, rhyme loving ferryman and Cockney carriage driver. Kim Ismay brings a pantomime exaggeration to pompous matriarch Lea pushing Fanny into marriage, yet shows her maternal warmth in act two. George Howard is endearing as Fanny's future husband Willhelm Hensel, making the most groan-inducing puns genuinely hilarious. Jade May Lin also shines as aspiring concertist Clara and Corey Montague-Sholay brings humour to snide Felix.

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A riotous, irreverent yet enthralling play that gives a voice to a too long ignored musical genius, Fanny is a must watch for those who love the current trend of theatre spotlighting female historical figures. With a captivating performance from Charlie Russell leading a fantastic ensemble and a well crafted script by Calum Finlay, this should mark your next visit to the Watermill Theatre in its amazing summer season.

Fanny runs at the Watermill Theatre until June 15.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith


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