Wise Children: 2018-19 UK tour diary

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Wise Children Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Earlier this year I headed out on tour with The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – well, I went to every venue on the UK leg of their tour… So with this being my year of Emma Rice, I simply had to do the same thing for Wise Children! It’s heading to a few places I know and love, as well as some theatres I’ve not managed to visit before; it’ll be great to take in some sights at some points during my tour as well.

Wise Children started life at London’s Old Vic, where (unsurprisingly) I had booked a few tickets on the strength of Emma Rice and Katy Owen’s names alone… Me being me, the first things I booked were the first preview and very last performance – although I was slightly miffed when they then allowed people in for an open dress rehearsal prior to the first preview (but obviously wouldn’t have turned down the chance to go had I won a ticket!). I have to admit that I was slightly on the fence about aspects of the show following the first preview, but I put that down to a combination of it being in need of some tightening (fair enough, given that it was the first preview) and having only just finished reading the book – minutes before the performance began! Source material can sometimes get in your head and spoil what are actually very good adaptations.

Since that first outing, it’s been on the upward trail – every show improves on the last, be it through Emma Rice’s tinkering, a subtle shift in performance, or where I happen to be sitting… I’m really looking forward to dedicating a good chunk of my free time to following this show around the country! So keep an eye on this blog, as a new diary entry will be added following each show – and I’ll also be updating my exploits via Instagram stories, if that’s your thing.

Oxford 5

Oxford Playhouse (7.30pm, 15 November 2018)
A nice one to start the tour off with; it’s just over an hour away (including the very short walk from my office to Paddington station) and I know that teeny area of Oxford fairly well now. The only problem is that there really isn’t a lot to do – I didn’t want to risk delays or a commuter crush by taking a train any later, so I ended up with two hours to kill before curtain up… It is nice to be able to take things easy, I suppose. Plus there was no sign of a power cut, unlike my Flying Lovers trip back in April – which caused no end of stress over making it out to my return train!

Following a bit of a stroll around, it seemed the best plan to go and pick up my ticket and have a cup of tea to keep me going. I had a little panic about the fact that my seat had been changed without warning, but it was just because row A had been removed to accommodate the stage – I have to give credit to Oxford Playhouse for making sure that people who had booked the front row were able to stay in the front row, as I’ve had a few experiences of being shoved anywhere without so much as an email to let me know! So I was in the front row still, and on the end just to give me an extra bit of help in escaping the theatre quickly to make sure I got to the station in good time.

I’ve definitely got to the point where I’m trying to watch different things, particularly anything going on in the background, and being right at the front also gives you a new perspective. I rather enjoyed Samuel Archer’s portrayal of the charming (and occasionally sinister) Perry – and I always look forward to Cassius Booth galloping onstage! A little bonus for me came in the form of a quick chinwag with Nora Chance during the interval, which really rounded the night off brilliantly. You’ll be pleased to know that I made it to Oxford station in plenty of time, and even got back to London early enough to catch the last train home rather than having to night bus my way back! Ready for a busy Friday at work…

Cambridge 2

Cambridge Arts Theatre (7.45pm, 20 November 2018)
As I’ve managed to spend my birthday in the company of Emma Rice’s shows ever since I first started watching them, this year could be no exception! It was also an excellent excuse to take a couple of much-needed days off work, as I needed to stay overnight thanks to the peculiarly late start – as well as a late night train journey defeating the object of having a bit of a break… I had hoped to do a bit of exploring, but I didn’t much fancy too much wandering around in the rain (it always rains on my birthday), so I settled for a mooch around the immediate proximity of the place where I was staying – and it’s lucky I did decide to check out where some things were, as the theatre’s hidden down an alleyway! Cambridge has made a rather half-hearted attempt at directing visitors to its sites of interest. Had I relied on signage alone, I’d have been going round in circles for hours; I just happened to look down a small side street and spotted an A-board with ‘Box Office’ written on it (not even anything specific to the Arts Theatre!) and decided to investigate.

Typically, the ticket prices for this one were not great… Whereas Oxford offered the front row for £10, I’d have had to pay almost four times as much for the same area in Cambridge – considering the most I’d previously paid was £21 for my favoured dress circle seats at the Old Vic, I wasn’t keen on paying significantly more for a non-London show unless I absolutely had to. Even though it was my birthday show, I just couldn’t justify it. The seat I ended up with was a little disappointing (my research didn’t suggest that the ledge would be so restrictive), especially as it was twice the Oxford price – the temptation to hotfoot it down to an empty stalls seat was incredibly high once I saw what I’d landed myself with!

But once the people next to me decided to move (as their view was even worse), I could actually make a bit more of the situation, and the stage actually became visible. It was a bit of an odd one: a lot of the audience seemed to be in some slightly different time zone, as the laughs invariably came about 10 seconds late… Weird. It’s also interesting to see the first performance in a new venue, as there’s bound to be a little teething problem or two, and I like to see how the cast react! I had a great time, anyway, and I’m definitely loving this show more & more with each watch. The cherry on the cake was yet to come though… As I was lucky enough to first meet Etta properly, and then (after two and a half years of waiting) all my birthday wishes came true as Emma Rice herself emerged from the stage door! She was as lovely (if not lovelier) than I’d hoped, and made me feel really special even with just a brief chat – I’m so glad I finally had the chance to thank her for everything, as discovering her work has truly been a life-changing experience.

I can’t quite believe that’s the last I’ll see of the show this year!

bristol 2

Bristol Old Vic (2.30pm, 26 January 2019)
November feels like such a long time ago now – and that perception definitely filtered into my experience at my first Wise Children of 2019. In the build-up to the day I was quite cool about it, and as I’d been suffering with a cold in the early part of the week I was still in the mindset of just wanting to stay in bed all day and not do anything, but as soon as I got on the coach on Saturday morning (I can’t resist a £5 National Express ticket) I was abuzz with excitement. I was going to see this wonderful show again!

It was also my first time back at the Bristol Old Vic for nearly a year – the last thing I saw there was The Cherry Orchard back in March 2018. I was thrilled to learn that their refurb was finally complete: I’ve only ever known the place in its incomplete state, so it was actually rather weird entering through the front as opposed to the stage door… There’s now a similar look & feel as the Bridge Theatre in south London; it’s very open and welcoming, though it does seem as though they were more interested in making a new café for the front of house space, rather than thinking about where people who don’t want food or drink might wait to go into the theatre. This only frustrates me so much because it always seems to be the way that I’ll find a nice spot, away on my own, and then people will needlessly come and invade my personal space, which forces me to move again just to feel comfortable. (This managed to happen multiple times within about 15 minutes on Saturday!)

But onto the show. I couldn’t resist bagging myself the last front row seat of the pit, and I’m so glad that I give into temptation that easily! Nothing reconnects you with a show faster than being all but on the stage, especially something like this; when you have performers like Katy Owen involved, they cannot resist trying to make you feel part of proceedings – I will never complain about getting a talking to from Grandma Chance! Other than the more emotional moments, I think I must have been beaming away the whole time. Obviously it’s only been two months since I last saw the show, so it’s not like I’d forgotten the details, but having that complete break did mean that the jokes felt fresher to me as a repeat viewer – Paul Hunter’s Gorgeous George actually had me in stitches during the whole Brighton episode. It was also great to see a different take on Peregrine, with Paul Rider doing a brilliant job standing in for Mike Shepherd while he oversees rehearsals for Zog.

In fact, the whole thing made me feel so good that I ended up booking myself another Bristol day trip the very next day – how was I supposed to resist?

Bristol 6

Bristol Old Vic (2.30pm, 9 February 2019)
I could really have done with a lie-in on Saturday – or at least not having to get up extra early because I’d forgotten to pick up my evening train ticket from Paddington… But in spite of that I managed to make it to the National Express in good time, and had a productive journey reading the Wise Children playtext I’d bought a fortnight earlier! The coach arrived as promptly as always, which meant I easily made it to the theatre before my parents arrived – oh yes, I’d managed to find a date where they could just about make it up to see the matinée and get back to Somerset in time for an evening meal! We ended up testing out the new café at the Bristol Old Vic for our lunch; I’d definitely recommend it for a pre-show bite, especially as our pots of tea gave us nearly three cups each.

It may have just been me, but everything in that afternoon show felt incredibly excitable! There have definitely been some tweaks made in the intervening weeks, though my instinct and my memory are playing tricks on me, so I’m now questioning whether my “ooh, those are new props!” was actually right… Anyway, I loved the idea of the pantomime cow “finding the truth” in its mooing, and Melchior trying to get his newborn twins to say “RADA”! My parents and I were sat separately, so at the end of the interval I was happily chatting to Dora (who didn’t think I looked old enough to be allowed an alcoholic drink!) whilst my parents had a natter with Nora over the other side. Always good fun!

I think basically every time I’ve been to Bristol there has been some sort of rain, and this time we were treated to the downpour kind… And because Bristol doesn’t have sensibly organised bus stops like London I ended up having to walk/dash to Temple Meads and got absolutely soaked! Though getting the train home did feel like a bit of a luxury, compared to my usual coach trips. No time for any last dashes to Bristol to see the show now – I’ve got a bit of a wait until my northern mini-break…

Manchester 6

HOME MCR (2pm, 2 March 2019)
As hard as it was to tear myself away from Liverpool, where I’d spent my Friday, knowing that my first port of call in Manchester was the next performance of Wise Children made things a little easier… After one last wander around the Royal Albert Dock, I made my way to Lime Street station to catch a train inland (smirking when we stopped at Eccles). Just as I thought I was going to have a dry day, the Manchester curse struck again – I found Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square and then was subjected to a drenching, forcing me to repeat the damp dash from Sainsbury’s to HOME I first made 11 months ago.

With an earlyish start and a fair amount of walking done already (I’m doing 10,000 steps a day this month for Cancer Research, and am absolutely smashing it so far) my very filling breakfast had started to wear off, so I chugged down a sandwich outside before heading in to freshen myself up a bit. I was rather excited to see a pair of dressing room mirrors stood in the foyer near the box office queue with lots of paraphernalia from the show, including butterflies, the “kiddie porn” photo of Estella, Melchior’s paper crown and Nora & Dora’s perfume bottles; it probably didn’t mean a huge amount to many of the people passing through the building, but it was a nice treat for me to see it up close.

As much as I love it when I can repeat visits to shows in quick succession, having a gap of three weeks is also good as it makes the performance that bit more exciting. It was nice to see Mike Shepherd back as Peregrine (and giving a local twist to Ranulph Hazard’s line about taking Shakespeare to the world: “Paris, Panama, Preston and beyond!”), and Gorgeous George got a particularly rousing reception from the Manchester crowd! Omari Douglas and Melissa James were on tip-top form as Showgirl Nora and Dora – I love to feel the audience’s surprise as they are unveiled, and their dancing is always full of so much energy & fun.

This also happened to be a BSL performance; I’m always intrigued by these as there are different ways that the person signing can be incorporated. I have to admit that I was hoping for them to be wandering freely around the stage for this one, but it’s probably too busy a show for that to be appropriate – instead he was sat in the corner of the stage and access seats were set aside for those who needed them. It must have been a nice intimate experience for them, almost like having their own personal guise right there next to the action. I did enjoy the few interactions with the cast that he could get away with – especially looking frustrated when they did their brief signing section early on, jokily looking like he thought he needn’t have bothered coming!

For once I didn’t have to dash off to catch a train or coach straight after, but instead I was filling my evening with the UK tour of Les Misérables… Anyone else think I scheduled those two shows the wrong way round?

York 2

York Theatre Royal (2pm, 7 March 2019)
I don’t do things by halves. As I was a little bored of the Saturday trips and having to negotiate the extra people this entails, I decided that taking a day off work for a midweek matinée was probably the answer – as I couldn’t quite fit my diary around the overnight stay that I really wanted, as I was hoping to get some more exploring time in (I’ve not been to York for over 15 years). As it turned out, the cheapest train ticket meant I ended up there around 11.30am, which meant I had a bit of free time! The Railway Museum was the obvious choice (oh I love a good train), then I had just enough time to find York Minster and have a wander down Shambles before heading to the theatre.

I’d forgotten that this performance was due to be filmed, and was excited to learn that it was the BBC doing the filming – I’d presumed it was just for the company’s archives or something, but the whispers are that the show will be broadcast on BBC Four at some point later this year… So keep an eye out! I’m guessing that it won’t be scheduled after the watershed, as a few fucks & shits were toned down; it’s a bit of a shame, as these bits didn’t get quite as raucous a reaction as normal (you can’t beat Katy’s “What the FUCK!” as Grandma Chance spots Melchior in the dress circle), but I suppose rules are rules. It’ll be interesting to see how it all comes out, anyway – I don’t know whether they’re intending on choosing the best of the three shows filmed, or combining them in some way – and I’m glad that it gives people who missed it a chance to see it, and potentially those who dismissed it after early previews can come back and see what it’s grown into.

I was back on the front row this week (I think it must’ve been dirt cheap for some reason), and I had a whale of a time! Even though the travelling around is really tiring, knowing that I have these shows to look forward to brightens my weeks considerably; with some of the things I end up seeing for reviewing purposes, it is nice to have other things dotted around your diary that you’re guaranteed to enjoy – just in case… It seems hard to believe that there’s only a month left of the tour now, and only three more venues! At least for those I won’t decide to schedule a 9.20pm VAULT Festival show upon my return to London… So it’s understandable that I’m utterly knackered, but the upside is that I managed to take over 20,000 steps during my very long day – so swings and roundabouts!

Chester 2

Storyhouse, Chester (2.30pm, 23 March 2019)
For me, this was probably the most random stop on the whole of the tour. I’ve never before considered going to Chester, so at least now I can tick it off my list! Nice smooth journey up (direct train – boom!), dry weather, plenty of walking – but not all that much to do… Whilst I’d happily pop into the city to go to the theatre again, I’m not going to recommend it as a tourist hub; perhaps if I’d had time to go to the zoo I’d have been more amused, or if I was the kind of person who gets a kick out of shopping, but as it was the time between arrival and showtime went rather slowly. Maybe what I should’ve done was go to Liverpool (quite possibly my favourite place on Earth) and then head over to Chester in time for the show?

But I had a hunch that, as I’d had such a dull time, this particular show would be extra special – and my theatre hunches are very rarely wrong! It was the lovely Etta’s final day with the production, with the matinée obviously being her penultimate performance, and I think it was a cracking day to end her time as Nora. The crowd took a little while to get going, but once they did there was a wonderful atmosphere in the auditorium. The magic definitely began early doors: as Dora & Nora were telling the story of their grandparents a real butterfly fluttered in, landed on Ranulph and flew around a bit. Being in the front row meant I spotted this unexpected guest very quickly, and also saw the cast’s reactions to it as they tried to hold it together for the rest of the scene! (Ankur later tweeted a beautiful response.) I also have to mention what was possibly my favourite Ranulph Hazard Shakespeare outreach quote yet: “Madrid, Mesopotamia, Mold and beyond!”

Though I’m obviously very excited about the prospect of seeing Emma Rice performing (several times!), I really will miss Etta’s presence – and I made the most of watching her during this show. I’ve been doing my best to look at different parts of the stage during this tour, just to try and pick up on things going on in the background, so it was nice to focus on Nora’s reactions this time (the miscarriage gets more & more heartbreaking) – as well as watch Etta bring her own choreography to life one last time. This ended up being one of the most special shows for me so far, and I can’t believe how much this show has come on over the past few months. I have to say, it was nice to be able to wander to the station to catch a train home as my 16,000+ steps by that point (and lots of fresh air) had definitely knackered me out. A day that started with a whimper but went out with a bang!

Richmond 3

Richmond Theatre (7.30pm, 26 March 2019)
Well… This is as close to home as the show’s been since last November, so it’d be rude not to be there for the first performance of the week! Especially as it marked a very special debut. I’m still going strong with my 10,000 steps a day challenge (feel free to sponsor me if you’re impressed with the fact that I passed the 310,000 mark almost a week ago), so I decided to walk from work in Paddington to Hammersmith – that way I could get 3+ miles under my belt and then catch a bus to avoid going into zone 4… I’d already completed a similar length walk prior to work, so you can imagine that I was feeling just a bit knackered by the time I plonked myself on a seat on the 391!

It was, of course, Emma Rice’s first show stepping into the role of Nora; I’m guessing there were a few butterflies in stomachs (sorry, couldn’t resist), but everything seemed to go pretty smoothly and it ended up being a very special night. You can absolutely imagine Emma and Gareth sitting in a corner giggling away together, which immediately makes their Chance twin double act feel just right – and as the rest of the cast are so established in their acting roles, there’s clearly great support coming from every angle. She may have written & directed the thing, but that’s very different to finding yourself in the middle of it; there is a lot going on in this show, so to come in for the final two weeks is an admirable feat indeed.

This was the first of three shows at Richmond (well…), and I found myself on Nora’s side of the front row this time round. The stage seems a little more cramped than some previous stops on the tour, but the caravan has just about enough room to be manoeuvred around! It’s just hit me that this whole thing is coming to an end very soon, and I can’t quite believe it’s come round so quickly – to me, it’s the kind of show that should always be on somewhere as it’s such a joyous celebration of theatre, and is Emma Rice through and through.

Richmond 8

Richmond Theatre (2.30pm & 7.30pm, 30 March 2019)
My first real opportunity on the tour to do a double day – so I took it! I think this is the first time I’ve done one of these since I saw 946 at Bristol back in November 2016… In order to get towards my 10,000 steps (and to once again avoid going into zone 4) I walked from Kew Gardens station to the theatre; this isn’t too difficult a task once you realise you need to go over the bridge at the station, although when you’re forced to go at a near jog into bright sunlight because you’re running late it isn’t quite so fun. But I made it in plenty of time. My first seat for the day was in row B for a bit of variety – it was the same price as row A but there was definitely less neck ache involved!

The matinée rather took me by surprise as far as the audience were concerned; there was a very boisterous bunch in! It created a real buzz in the auditorium and gave the whole show a really fun atmosphere – aside from the fact that a few people seemed to find it hilarious when Grandma Chance died, which was just a bit odd really. Talking of Grandma, I had the dubious pleasure of Katy shimmying at me which meant I could only laugh rather than join in with “hope for the best, expect the worst” like she was trying to induce me to do. I always enjoy a little blooper, so when “the red headed horrors” came out as “the red hot lovers” I definitely had a little chuckle to myself, plus it was quite funny that the Animal Rights protester ended up with the poll tax placard. The standing ovation at the end was pretty much instantaneous, and very well deserved.

One thing I was not quite so happy with during that afternoon show was that someone behind me decided that Richmond Theatre was their living room, and so took their shoes off – I only discovered this when I stood up in the interval to let people past and they almost tripped over them. (I thought I could smell something before this, but presumed I was imagining it…) I later saw the culprit wandering around in his socks as if it was the most natural thing to do. No! I’m all for people feeling comfortable in the space, but that is a step too far. Can you imagine the horrendous stink if everyone did that?

After totting up a few thousand more steps in between shows (walking behind and around perhaps the slowest, least aware people in the country), I was excited to head back for the evening and take my place dead centre of the front row. Looking directly up I could see the lovely inscription “To wake the soul by tender strokes of art”, which felt rather appropriate. It also meant I was perfectly positioned to see Mirabelle blow sand right into Omari’s face when they reach Brighton beach – and promptly got the giggles! One of my favourite things about theatre is that it can constantly evolve, if the right cast & creatives are involved, so seeing people tinkering with their performances even in the penultimate week is so gratifying; Ankur is a great one for this, adding something new to his “Remind the three witches…” spiel and the Martha Graham demonstrations in both shows (differing between matinée & evening), plus I picked up on “Why can’t we fight with words?!” as Melchior and Peregrine tussled early on.

Without fail, by the time Young Dora exclaims “Goodness, I’m happy!” I’m full to the brim with joy myself, and ready to say the line along with her. You can only imagine what a double helping can inspire! It was great to see that Emma had quickly settled into her role and made it her own – though now I can’t quite believe that there’s only one more week left…

Coventry 2

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (7.30pm, 3 April 2019)
How are we at the last week already? It doesn’t seem possible. I know there’s the BBC Four broadcast to look forward to later in the year, which I am very grateful for, but it isn’t quite the same as having a different theatre to travel to each week. Thankfully the final week is being spent somewhere that’s relatively easy to get to & from, so it’s enabling me to make two visits rather than just the one – I definitely spoiled myself with that double day on Saturday… A Wednesday evening press night (followed by a Q&A) was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I trundled up to Coventry after work and loitered in the theatre’s café for an hour catching up on some writing.

I’ve experienced such joy with this show following a slightly unsteady start, and was as excited as ever when the lights went down and it began; the only problem was, the reminder that this was my penultimate show kept popping into my head at inopportune moments. This is often the case with me – the second-to-last show perhaps gives you more time to reflect on what will happen next, whereas you go into the final show to make sure you enjoy it one last time (and then cry about it afterwards). As much as I love my front row seats, it was nice to be sat a bit further back for this one as I could take the whole thing in, and also scrutinise things away from the main action without looking like a complete weirdo!

It felt like the audience took a little while to warm up (it can be a bit disconcerting when you are one of only a few loud chucklers – especially given how many times I’ve heard these lines!), but Gorgeous George definitely got things going in the first act, before Grandma Chance’s introduction to ‘What You Will’ at the top of the second act. I’ll freely admit that I was in a right state by the end of the show (cue me hastily wiping my face before applauding & leaping to my feet), and am now bracing myself for what’s to come after Saturday’s show.

I would’ve had to take the very last train back to London anyway, so it was nice to be kept occupied with the Q&A (comprising Emma and several members of the company) – especially as we seem to be in the middle of a bit of a cold snap! It was nice to hear a bit about Emma’s transition from director to cast member, as well as how creative ideas have sprung forth & evolved from rehearsals until now; I’m glad that I finally managed to get to one of these post-show events, as it’s always nice to find out a bit more about the show – even if you don’t end up asking a question yourself (I wanted to mention the prominence of the butterflies but couldn’t quite formulate a proper question in time). And though my night was tarnished slightly by TfL cancelling night bus after night bus once I got back to London (they did exactly the same thing the last time I went to Coventry for a midweek show), there was no way I’d have taken the decision not to make the trip. Now onwards to the final bows…

Coventry 10

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (2pm, 6 April 2019)
The last day. Well that snuck up on me! Originally I’d hoped to do another double day, or just the evening, as I’d been at the first official show at the Old Vic – it’s always nice to bookend a show’s run. However, I got the offer to cover the Olivier Awards again for BroadwayWorld UK, so for once I made the sensible decision to just go up for the afternoon. As tempting as it was to change my mind on the day and buy a ticket for the evening, I held firm. As it was I’d not realised the show began at 2pm (I had the default timing of 2.30pm in my head) so there wasn’t as much time beforehand as I’d anticipated, but it did at least mean I didn’t need to rush at all after the show.

Since Wednesday I’ve been on the verge of tears whenever I thought about the show ending – probably the worst I’ve been since Twelfth Night at the Globe almost two years ago – so I was slightly nervous about what would happen that afternoon! As it was, my instructions to myself to not think about what came next and to just lose myself in the show actually worked, as I had a belter of a time. Tears of laughter replaced tears of sadness as I took in this marvellous spectacle for the last time, sat dead centre in possibly the best seat in the house. And even though it was their final day, there was no stopping a bit of fun & games – my favourite had to be Ankur’s Prinking Minx being a Texan for the afternoon, which actually really worked (and succeeded in taking me by surprise!). It was only when we got to Girls Just Want To Have Fun that I found myself feeling a little emotional, but I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?

And, as you’ll have seen from the photo above, the treats didn’t stop there for me, as I was lucky enough to be invited onstage after the show to say a quick hello to some of the cast – and have a seat in the caravan itself! I’m incredibly grateful to the Wise Children team for their generosity on what was a big day for them, too, and touched that they gave me that wonderful gift. There’s a lot of nastiness in certain parts of the arts, but something like this reminds you that the good guys are out there (and they usually make the best theatre!).

It’s been a wonderful six months on the road with Nora & Dora – and I can’t wait for Wise Children’s next step.

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Wise Children is on tour throughout the UK until 6 April 2019. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website – tickets are also available from individual box offices.

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