Mercury Theatre, Colchester – until 13 October 2018
“The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders who was born in Newgate, and, during a life of continued variety, for threescore years, besides her childhood, was 12 years a whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her own brother), 12 years a thief, eight years a transported felon in Virginia, at last grew rich, lived honest, and died a penitent. Written from her own memorandums.”
It’s not the catchiest title in the world – but arguably the longest. So thank God that the publishers renamed Daniel Defoe’s penultimate bestseller, Moll Flanders.
This cheeky little romp through the life of a fictitious and notorious London whore has now been turned into a saucy theatre production, complete with the occasional ditty, premiering at the Mercury Theatre Colchester. It has to be said that Nick Perry’s “unfaithful adaptation” is true to its word. He’s taken a lot of artistic license with Defoe’s story, to come up with a rich, ribald retelling of this astonishing tale.
I have mixed feelings about this spirited production. Director Ryan McBryde has done a tremendous job in creating an atmospheric, engaging, hugely watchable show, with a dazzling leading lady. But, at the same time, I can’t help but feel that Moll’s controversial life has fallen victim to the #MeToo movement. It’s all a little bit safe and family-friendly with a lot of the sex and debauchery either tamed down or taken out.
Despite that, this production of Moll Flanders works thanks to an excellent ensemble who whip up the audience before each act with a few choice tunes, a terrific Moll in Eva-Jane Willis and a lovely anarchic turn by Bill Champion as Defoe.
Defoe was considered one of the founders of the English novel, with his Robinson Crusoe being his breakout book, after a colourful life as journalist, spy, frequent debtor, trader and pamphleteer. In Perry’s comedy Defoe is, once again, on his uppers and suffering writer’s block. He visits a friend in Newgate debtors’ prison and stumbles into prostitute Elizabeth Atkins, who is there plying her trade.
He’s entranced and hits on the idea of using her scandalous exploits as the basis of the first erotic novel.
No-one knows if she really existed or whether she was, as Defoe keeps insisting, a composite of women, and the product of his imagination.
But Moll marries with regularity – on one occasion actually marrying her half brother without realising it (and becoming pregnant by him) – steals, commits bigamy, and cuts a swathe through both Colchester, where she grew up, and London.
Champion is frequently sidelined to act as notetaker while Willis’s Moll regales us with her tales. That’s a shame because his irreverent dialogue, littered with pithy ripostes, is hilarious.
Hardworking Eva-Jane Willis is onstage throughout as the show’s fallen heroine, deftly bringing out both the humour and ruthlessness in a woman forced to sell her body, and make terrible choices, simply to survive.
Sometimes it’s not pretty. Even Defoe is shocked by the decisions she makes – and he made her up!
The cast look as though they’re having as much fun as the audience with the show, some cheerily taking bows when their character is killed off. Annie Wensak, in particular, is exceptionally good as a selection of female characters good and bad.
A final word about the production itself. Gabriella Slade’s evocative, multi-layered, set, all oak beams, rusting bars and decorated with jugs, buckets, brasses and ropes, is fantastic, providing the bones for the jail, a selection of homes and even features a nook for the band to hide out.
McBryde keeps the story moving at a pace, with the second half bolder and funnier, although the musical numbers, pleasant as they are, do disrupt the narrative.
Another sensational production in the Mercury Theatre’s Made In Colchester season.
Moll Flanders plays at the Mercury Theatre until October 13.
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