Paul T Davies reviews Wise Children, and adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel presented by Emma Rice’s new company at the Old Vic Theatre.
The Old Vic Theatre, London.
18 October 2018
The stakes and expectations are high for this, the launch of Emma Rice’s new company, Wise Children, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s final novel, the company named after it, the first new production from Rice after her appalling treatment by the Globe Theatre board. Carter and Rice are a perfect fit, the novelist unbound by convention and politeness, writing her kind of novel, Rice fearless and experimental in her company approach. Freed from Globe constraints, Rice is stronger in her vision and determination to create her own kind of work. Wise Children, like Carter’s novel, is messy in places and drags a little in the first half, but has exquisite theatricality and invention. It’s a love letter to theatre for people who love theatre.
Twins Nora and Dora Chance greet us on their seventy fifth birthdays, and lead us through their life story, born on the wrong side of the tracks, the “left side”, the bastard side, the illegitimate children of theatrical legend Melchior Hazard. While his showbiz star shines, they are brought up in South London, (the Old Vic a perfect venue for this tale), by their naturist grandmother , hoofing their way through music hall, panto, war, showgirls to the fore, occasionally supported by their Uncle Peregrine, who himself fathers illegitimate twins with Melchior’s wife. Rice has cast the show gender and colour blind, and before we get too snobbish about that, there is plenty of Shakespearean references to highlight cross dressing, lost children, and accidental reunions- they don’t live at 49 Bard Road for nothing!
Gareth Snook plays Dora, and it took a while for me to be convinced by his characterisation. The style of his performance leads us towards almost inevitably to pantomime, which the show embraces, along with music hall, but I was concerned that the poignancy of the tale would be lost. However, Snook relishes the role, and the second half provides many beautiful moments, especially backed by the song The Way You Look Tonight, and there is an excellent joke about cross dressing. He is matched by Etta Murfitt as Nora, a strong performance from the start. However, the blind casting really comes into its own with the arrival of Melissa James and Omari Douglas as the Lucky Chances, the showgirl Nora and Dora. They are superb, sexy and hugely talented, and their routines kick the show into life. As Grandma Chance Katy Owen appears to be channelling Catherine Tate’s Nan, very funny, but a hugely broad performance- subtle it ain’t! Paul Hunter is excellent as Melchior and also Gorgeous George, a tragic music hall comedian, and Mike Shepherd is hugely entertaining in all his roles, including Peregrine. In fact, there isn’t a weak link in the cast, backed by a superb band and wonderful music from the era- the use of music is as wonderful and as appropriate as ever.
Emma Rice has influenced so many directors that, where she once led now looks standard, and for fans of her work there are no surprises here, with motifs and echoes from previous productions repeated. Whist wondering where and how her style can now develop, her strength has always been in simple story telling. Inevitably, novel adaptations contain much exposition, and the show takes time to take flight. But when the women sing their own version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun at the end, and remind us what a joy it is to sing and dance, you’ll have a broad smile on your face as you are reminded that your alternative family is theatre itself. It’s well worth taking a chance and spending an evening with the Chance sisters. Welcome back Emma Rice!