“Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks.” Emma Rice’s Wise Children began their journey back at the Old Vic in October last year, and since then they’ve been touring all across the country – from Bristol & Oxford to Chester & York. Their final week will be spent at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre (one of the co-producers for this show), with Rice herself continuing to tread the boards as Nora Chance. This comes just after the confirmation of the company’s next show, an adaptation of Malory Towers, which will follow in the summer.
Angela Carter’s 1991 novel is a myriad of anecdotes from the autobiography of former showgirl Dora Chance, covering the entirety of her life (in & out of showbiz) with identical twin sister Nora, featuring a wealth of extended family members and several generations of the Hazard clan. Emma Rice’s adaptation understandably doesn’t try to cover it all, or include every single character, instead focusing mostly on the family’s theatrical exploits and sticking to three main pairs of twins only. From their grandmother Estella’s bizarre birthplace and Melchior Hazard abandoning their mother, to their day trip to Brighton with uncle Perry and becoming the ‘Lucky Chances’ – you definitely can’t call their life uneventful! To top it all, they share their birthday with both their father and Shakespeare, and all the remaining skeletons are bound to come out of the closet at their joint birthday party…
Whilst the story is London through and through, with the Chance girls in their Brixton home, that doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated outside of the capital, making it perfectly suited to touring. The true heart of the show is theatre, with a love for the stage coming through in every “pit-a-pat”; it gently pokes fun at Shakespeare through Melchior’s pomposity, but a story that owes so much to the Bard (Carter herself was a professed admirer) also serves to celebrate his storytelling talent. At Coventry the stage extends out slightly at the sides, and the result is that it feels like the show is reaching out to give you a big hug.
The show is Emma Rice to a tee. A group of performers gradually fill the stage and do their warmups as the audience pile in, stage hands fixing lightbulbs and sweeping the floor, before Young Dora & Nora run from the audience onto the stage to begin proceedings. It becomes something of a show within a show, narrated by 75-year-old Nora & Dora and slickly actualised. Actors disappear and seamlessly reappear in various guises, managing some pretty swift quick changes to do so. Rice’s direction is as fluid as ever, and never wastes a moment; locations change & props are moved and the action continues around it. Etta Murfitt’s choreography is expressive and full of variety – one of the standout moments is undoubtedly the revealing of the Lucky Chances (Melissa James & Omari Douglas) in full showgirl mode, launching into an energetic performance of Yes, My Darling Daughter. All of these transitions between characters’ different ages are done naturally and without ceremony, coming when the audience perhaps least expects it and not letting the pace drop.
Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design is, as ever, something to marvel at. Often vibrantly colourful, there are also some more pared down moments that focus attention in on particular characters or events taking place – Nora’s miscarriage is a great example of this, as she is quite literally put under the spotlight, making her pain even clearer to see.
Vicki Mortimer’s costume design also serves as an ingenious storytelling device; any design of clothing shared by different ages of the character fade as the years pass, whether this is the girls’ red shoes or Peregrine’s bold blue & yellow ensemble. The butterfly theme adopted by Rice has a quite beautiful effect, as they pop up in different places and designs throughout the show.
One thing that has definitely made this show worth re-reviewing (aside from the chance it’s had to develop since its initial London run) is the inclusion of Emma Rice herself in the cast, replacing Etta Murfitt as Nora Chance. Rice has been away from the stage for about 10 years, but she’s clearly relishing the opportunity to get out there and play again; she and Gareth Snook (Dora) make a fantastic team, as you get the feeling from them that the twins have shared as many giggles as dramas over the years. It must have been quite daunting to come into a cast that are now so well established – despite being with them every step of the way – but Rice has taken this in her stride and is now very much embedded in the company.
I could single out each and every one of them (and should, really, as it’s such an ensemble piece) but of the whole company there are a few performances that I’d like to highlight. Patrycja Kujawska is playful as the blue-eyed boy, seemingly innocent in Nora’s hands but happy to take charge with Dora, tenderly consoling her when she doubts herself. Paul Hunter and Mike Shepherd more often than not end up as an hilarious double act, whether they’re Melchior & Peregrine, the panto company or the stage hands; Hunter is particularly good value in his role as Gorgeous George, telling old jokes in his end-of-the-pier show that are somehow incredibly funny in his hands.
Sam Archer excels as young Peregrine, all charm on the outside but with a darkness that occasionally peeks through. His turn as Cassius Booth in Estella & Ranulph Hazard’s story is also rather memorable, with all his posturing as well as accentuating his legs – and has possibly the most extravagant death I’ve ever seen on a stage! Opposite Archer as young Melchior is the ever inventive Ankur Bahl, his early vulnerability worn off by the time he tastes some acting success, setting him up to be the “pretentious old git” that Nora remembers. A final special mention goes to Katy Owen for wowing in a fat suit as the unmistakable Grandma Chance; it’s clear from the off that she cares deeply about the abandoned twins and would do anything to protect them, but she’s also side-splittingly funny at every opportunity.
My verdict? A show that is unabashedly in love with theatre, revelling in the curious mischief of Angela Carter’s novel – what a joy it is to dance and sing, indeed!
Wise Children runs at Belgrade Theatre until 6 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.