If you’ve read Angela Carter’s final novel, Wise Children, you’ll understand just how gargantuan an undertaking it would be to adapt for the stage – but when the person taking on that challenge is Emma Rice, you can be certain it’s a match made in heaven. Thematically and content-wise it is an ideal piece of work to bring to the stage; with its focus on a sprawling acting family, what better medium could you choose than theatre? This is the first venture for Rice’s brand new company (also named Wise Children) and is in the middle of a run at the Old Vic prior to a nationwide tour that’s currently booking until April 2019.
Dora & Nora Chance are identical twins who are about to celebrate their 75th birthdays, coincidentally on the same day as their father’s centenary. They’re part of a complicated set of twins; their father (Melchior) has a twin brother (Peregrine, or Perry) and they have twin half-sisters through Melchior’s first marriage (“the darling buds of May”, Saskia & Imogen). Dora & Nora have always longed to be acknowledged by their father, being the illegitimate offspring of his fleeting relationship with their chambermaid mother. Instead, they were brought up in Brixton by Grandma Chance, with a little assistance from Uncle Perry along the way. As they prepare for the big birthday party across the river, they reminisce over their time as showgirls and the lives & loves they’ve left behind – but there are other secrets that threaten to reveal themselves once the whole family is reunited…
This production is a great statement of intent from Rice at the start of her new adventure. When you read Wise Children, Carter’s influence over her is immediately obvious in terms of the playfulness, fearlessness and genuine theatricality of the writing – and whilst there’s no doubt that you’re watching an Emma Rice show (with familiar faces & favoured features on show) it shows a definite progression. If you come in looking for the sugary rush of Romantics Anonymous then you’ll need to brace yourself, as it has more in common with the likes of Brief Encounter (with a sense of melancholy running through it) and The Little Matchgirl (being unafraid to shy away from dark truths where necessary).
There are a great many strands to the story, but as long as you heed Dora’s advice at the very beginning and pay attention, it’s surprisingly straightforward to follow. Though it’s set in 1989 at the Chances’ 75th, they tell their family history in a fairly linear fashion, from their grandparents’ tragic story to the fallout from the 21st birthday party for “the darling buds of May”; a wise choice for a piece of theatre, as it could have been impossible to follow otherwise. Given the sheer volume of story that’s included, the odd little bit can feel slightly rushed or under-developed (such as Nora’s miscarriage and the effect it has on the rest of her life), but by the end the strands are all tied up and the circle of life is ready to begin again.
Vicki Mortimer’s set design is stunning, with the title up in lights and the inside of a caravan becoming several different locations. I’m not quite sure exactly why a caravan has been chosen, as none is referenced in the story, but its compactness is definitely appealing – and the varying interiors (now backed with a shocking pink) are very aesthetically pleasing. Mortimer’s costumes give each character a clear identity, so if they age and are played by a different actor you immediately know who they are. There are three ages of Nora & Dora, distinct from one another and each identifiable by an ‘N’ or a ‘D’ attached to their costumes.
Regular collaborator Lyndie Wright has designed the puppets for this production; the most frequently seen are some beautiful butterflies, though young Melchior & Peregrine’s fight is probably the most memorable puppetry moment in the show. Ian Ross has composed some gorgeous new music (played live in the back corner of the stage), as well as arranging some other songs in the same style – a folksy version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun is the cover version you never knew you needed.
Emma Rice has said that she’s not a fan of the terms ‘gender blind’ or ‘colour blind’ casting, instead approaching it with “eyes wide open” and keeping her mind “alert, political and flexible”. This is evident throughout her work, including Wise Children – and nowhere more so than in the casting of the Noras & Doras (Young, Showgirl & present-day). Mirabelle Gremaud & Bettrys Jones, Omari Douglas & Melissa James, and Etta Murfitt & Gareth Snook all pair up in the respective roles, transcending race, gender and physique to create three captivating sets of twins. If I’m being incredibly picky, I’d have quite liked them all to have used the same sort of accent; as it is, Gremaud stands out with her French lilt, but you can see exactly why she became Young Nora – she has a sparkle in her eye and an energy that complements Jones as Young Dora, as well as a truly beautiful singing voice. Douglas & James are the epitome of 20th century showgirls, their Shakespeare revue number is a particular highlight, and Murfitt & Snook are a comforting presence as the older twins telling the story.
It’s wonderful to see Ankur Bahl in another Emma Rice production, following his revelatory turn as Helenus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016. Bahl excels as the posturing Young Melchior, speaking in quotes from Shakespeare wherever possible, as well as giving an hilarious performance as one of Saskia & Imogen’s friends from RADA; do also keep an eye out for him in other minor roles, such as P.T. Barnum (yes, that Barnum). Opposite him, Sam Archer gives a charming & charismatic portrayal of Young Peregrine, his joviality masking an increasing amount of secrets.
One of the most memorable performances of the whole show, however, comes from Katy Owen as the outrageous naturist, Grandma Chance. Decked out in a fatsuit and a purple wig, she’s a larger than life presence who’s fiercely protective of her adopted girls, and unafraid to speak her mind – Owen uses this characteristic to her advantage as she comes out with a variety of hysterical ad libs, keeping both the audience and her fellow cast members on their toes. Owen also combines brilliantly with Jones to make up the obnoxious “darling buds of May”.
My verdict? A beautifully designed & performed show, that’s faithful to the source material without ever feeling constrained by it – a great statement of intent from Emma Rice.