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Fanny and Faggot
Finborough Theatre, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 7 February 2007

Jack Thorne's Fanny and Faggot is very much a play of two halves, both concerned with Mary Bell, the eleven-year-old Newcastle girl who was convicted of the murder of two toddlers in 1968, while her friend Norma Bell (no relation), who was also involved, was found not guilty.

The forty-five minute first half was written in 2004 and first staged at the Lift venue on the Edinburgh Fringe. For this London premiere, Thorne has added a new half-hour scene set ten years after the murders. The first half is a solid enough exercise in theatrical game playing, setting Mary and Norma in a squalid room and, through their childish games, gradually revealing the facts of the case, with the two actresses stepping in and out of roles as judges, parents, abusers. It's a standard enough aesthetic, which has been employed a hundred times by student companies. The production is accomplished though, with both Elicia Daly (Mary) and Sophie Fletcher (Norma) turning in proficient performances, albeit with their accents wandering from cockney to Geordie and back at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, it skilfully evokes the sheer misery of Mary Bell's abusive background and, through the children's games, manages to create a real sense of unease.

The second half, by contrast, is a revelation. While one endures the first half - this is not a criticism, it is how the piece operates; attacking the audience with a serious-minded battery of foul-mouthed language, descriptions of cruelty and squalor - the second, is positively enjoyable; by stating much less, it ends up saying a good deal more, and posing far harder questions. Rather than baldly underlining the decisions of the British justice system which locked up an abused 11-year-old girl for murder, the second half offers four well-developed, totally human characters making decisions and communicating with each other in real time as Mary and a friend from the open prison, where she is serving her sentence, abscond for the weekend and meet two young soldiers on leave from Northern Ireland. The potential for this scenario to score points, apportion blame and lecture hardly needs pointing out, so it is to Thorne's enormous credit that the piece remains so understated, light and natural; while offering almost non-stop complexity in the transactions/negotiations between the four characters. It is also incredibly funny, while offering an ending which manages to be incredibly moving without once straying near sentimentality.

If the writing is first rate, so is the cast; Elicia Daly reprises her role as Mary, joined by Diana May as her improbably sexy cell mate, with Christopher Daley and Simon Darwen as the two naïve squaddies. Darwen in particular turns in a brilliant comic performance as the perpetual underdog Raymond - something like an attractive reincarnation of Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.

The two halves are so different that it is hard to think of the thing as a single piece of theatre. More than anything, it illustrates the terrific improvement in Jack Thorne as a writer between 2004 and 2007 from well-meaning polemicist to notably talented dramatist. It is hard to resist the feeling that he might have been better off scrapping the first half altogether in favour of a longer new piece, but there is something about the sincerity and genuine concern which informs the original that has an effect on its more accomplished counterpart.

If there is a difficulty here, then it lies with the questionable ethics of presenting a fictionalised, speculative version of a still-living subject, who has virtually no chance of redress, since Mary Bell has gone to great lengths to have her privacy protected by law since her release in the face of sustained tabloid intrusion. Also, in the past, I have been troubled by Thorne's exploration of violence against women as seemingly the sole subject for his plays. I have now seen five or six, and each one has had, at its centre, a woman being abused. Thorne always displays an unimpeachable humanity in his work, and seems to be motivated by nothing more than the fiercest sense of compassion, but nonetheless it is curious the extent to which it dominates his creative life as a recurrent subject. What is striking, however, and what is illustrated by the time lapse between the writing of the first and second parts to Fanny and Faggot, is the shift in his perception. While earlier plays tended to offer a clear villain, sometimes bordering on the misandryst in their despair at man's vileness, Thorne's more recent work has offered a far more complex vision of a world where redemption is sometimes found in tiny acts of (notably ungendered) human kindness, and where flaws co-exist alongside small attempts at nobility.

Till 17 February 2007


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