F.A.N.Y follows the story of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (aka the F.A.N.Y), a group of female volunteers who drive motor ambulances and tend to the wounded in World War I. It follows their struggle to not only do their job against the challenging backdrop of the First World War, but also to merely receive recognition for the work they have given up so much of their lives to complete.
The first thing I regretted when seeing this production was that I hadn’t read a bit about the F.A.N.Y beforehand. There seemed to be quite a few audience members who were clearly more well informed than myself, laughing along to more of the in-jokes and just generally seeming to be more on the show’s wavelength. I was not deterred by this, however, and I did in fact feel like I learnt a lot about the F.A.N.Y by seeing the show (even just the fact that I hadn’t even heard of them before!), and I think this actually turned out to be a strength of the show. F.A.N.Y raises awareness of what groups like the F.A.N.Y did, not only for the war effort, but also for improving recognition and campaigning for the rights of women in the twentieth century.
This element of raising awareness is clear, and hardly surprising considering it is presented by the Anonymous Is A Woman theatre company, a group created to try and respond to women’s underrepresentation in theatre. It’s fair to say they’ve done a good job – the women’s struggles are illustrated eloquently and the show itself is presented with an entirely female cast. Although it is dramatic, emotional and sometimes dark, the show is not overly cathartic to the point where it becomes unenjoyable. Rather, it presents an honest and thoughtful presentation of life on the front line, balancing this with lighter hearted moments like the girls bonding over songs, poetry and general gossip.
The staging and sets at the Above the Arts Theatre never fail to intrigue me, and F.A.N.Y’s treatment was no exception. Turning the corner up into the small studio theatre I was met by vintage suitcases and wire crates that were moved around throughout the evening to create lots of different scenarios. Most impactful was the creation of an ambulance using two stretchers that were hooked into the aforementioned wire cases before being shaken to simulate a bumpy road. The plain and simple nature of the set was no issue though, as it helped not to detract from the powerful story that F.A.N.Y had to tell.
In terms of the cast, the show does have some weaknesses. The cast of five never broaden very far out of ordinary, with some performances leaving much to be desired. Particularly uncomfortable was Henri Merriam as the hard-nosed Scottish general Bruton who seemed to stumble fairly frequently – this was probably just down to first night nerves, but it did throw me off slightly when I was trying to get into the more emotional parts of the play. Madeline Gould was one of the cast’s only redeeming features as the sickeningly confident Phyllis Mason, a character whom she suited excellently and portrayed with both humour and sympathy.
F.A.N.Y presents a rarely seen view of the First World War and helped me to learn about what astounding work this under-appreciated group of women did. Although some elements of its production left much to be desired, it was not a completely unenjoyable evening and I really did leave feeling like I’d learnt something.
F.A.N.Y is playing the Arts theatre until 9 January. For more information and tickets, see Arts Theatre website.