Wednesday 31st October 2018 at The Old Vic, London.
Emma Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children is both the first production and the inspiration for the name of her brand new company. As a spring board into new territory, Wise Children is by no means the safest choice and is therefore a great choice for Rice and The Old Vic, considering both sell themselves on innovation and daring to tread the lesser travelled routes of theatreland.
Aside from the recognisable style, skill and fluency associated with Rice’s work, this production notably and proudly flies the flag for contemporary tastes; gender and colour blind casting, same-sex romantic exchanges (albeit with females playing males and vice versa) and nothing off-limits, including disturbing sub-plots amidst a primarily light-hearted production.
That’s not to say that the story itself is light-hearted as a whole, however – this is a grand display of skeletons of varying degrees of tragedy bursting out of closets; womanising fathers, deceitful lovers, child and family abandonment, incest, paedophillia and general moral negligence pervade a narrative which is gleefully oxymoronically performed with charm and nostalgic flair by an accomplished cast.
Wise Children courts complexity with a narrative dotted with twists and deceptions while working hard to deliver the story in sepia tones in a display of great affection for the bygone era of theatre depicted (all perfectly reflected in Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume designs).
We are told early on when to listen up and listen carefully; miss this and ‘it’ll be a very long few hours’ – this from a smirking Dora Chance, the aged version of one of our protagonists who subsequently launches into the tale leading up to this moment where two ageing sisters live in a caravan on the ‘wrong side’ of the river Thames.
From here we’re thrust back in time to see the twins’ conception and abandonment by father Melchior who scarpered and a mother who died shortly after their birth.
Growing up with a whacky naturist granny, the pair are supported financially by an absent uncle Peregrine who returns only to pass time immorally. Eventually, the girls take positions in the theatre, first as dancers and later as supporting actors in a Shakespearean production starring their comically slimy, self-indulgent father who abandoned them years before.
Big events and minor plot points are many and while characters are few, players (of both the fabric and flesh kind) are many. We have no less than five Noras and five Doras alongside four Peregrines and four Melchoirs; our first two Noras, Doras, Peregrines and Melchoirs are very sweet puppets (design: Lyndie Wright, direction: Sarah Wright) beautifully brought to life by the cast who raise laughs with the bickering and comic scraps between the rival male siblings while establishing a close bond between the sisters.
For Peregrine we have the younger played by Sam Archer and the older by Mike Shepherd – both of whom establish an early charm and likability which makes the character all the more disturbing later.
For Melchior, the younger is played by Ankur Bahl and the older by Paul Hunter. This is the funnier half of the genetic pool and both Bahl and Hunter capture the limitless vanity of the ambitious womanising actor Melchoir with hilarious conviction – Bahl in particular giving a stellar Narcissus lacquer to the man with an almost feminine affected gentle voice and languishing, indulgent pace of speech.
Nora and Dora have still more players assigned. For Dora, we have: Young – Bettrys Jones, Showgirl Dora – Melissa James and older Dora Chance – Gareth Snook. For Nora, we have: young – Mirabelle Gremaud, Showgirl Nora – Omari Douglas and older Nora Chance – Etta Murfitt. As primary teller of the tale, Gareth Snook gives older Nora Chance a grand Dame characterisation – self-aware of the cross-dressing dynamic, Snook labours the point and does so in a warmly playful Cockney drawl which is thankfully just a few hundred octaves lower than Joe Pasquale but alike in style.
Murfitt takes the same approach in terms of conjuring that age-old fairytale delivery but maintains a few more of the softer features of the younger incarnations of her character. Jones and Gremaud are perfect pictures of innocence, quickly taking the place of their fabric infant selves and bringing sweet, energetic life to the girls – and Gremaud also showcases a gorgeous singing voice here too.
It’s with the showgirl era of the twins’ lives that the women become more impressive and that’s down to the sensual musical talents of James and Douglas. The pace lifts as the girls find their dancing feet (choreography Etta Murfitt) and much-needed further depth is offered as we see the girls bartering over a blue-eyed boy and being entirely intertwined in each other’s lives. James and Douglas also offer some of the funniest moments, with a ditty on Shakespeare’s love of gender-swapping being a particularly winning moment.
Along the way, we meet a fair few minor characters fleetingly offered up by the multi-roling cast. One such key fleeting character is Lady Atalanta, the mother of the spoiled, grim twins fathered by both Peregrine and Melchoir in one way or another. Patrycja Kujawska plays the role with the quiet dignity and bottled up grand speech befitting a woman so very wronged but gets to flex her comic muscles with glimpses of a clueless Blue Eyed Boy.
Bettrys Jones and Katy Owen are fantastically hideous as these spoiled twins and their callous, bullish take on such rotten offspring is a real dark highlight.
A more prominent role is taken up by the impressive Owen whose performance as Grandma Chance lands somewhere between Catherine Tate’s Gran and every quirky, slightly dotty granny living in a tiny house somewhere off the radar. Owen milks the comedy for all its worth and offers the production a cantankerous, outrageous voice of wisdom bottled up in a comic nude suit with lashings of profanity-laden outbursts for good measure.
In short, everyone we meet is flawed and a little wild; each a little or a lot self-serving and each prone to an outrageous act or two – all in service of theatre – ours or there’s – dahling.
In Wise Children, we see a promising glimpse of things to come from this exciting new company. The production sails along smoothly, making use of all kinds of theatrical magic open to it – including an ethereal sequence combining real time action and music (Composer: Ian Ross) with animation (Beth Carter and Stuart Mitchell) projected onto the caravan, transporting us to an outdoor cinema to hammer home just how quickly Rice’s concepts can take shape and shift dynamics within a piece. We have music, dance, song, satirical ditties and meta-moments as actors break the fourth wall or as characters step outside of the fictional reality to land a quip.
It’s a perfectly entertaining ensemble piece featuring a superb cast, many of whom have Kneehigh in their back-catalogue and running in their theatrical veins.
For me, it’s taken time to pinpoint why this didn’t feel like a transcendent, perfect piece of theatre from an innovative new company with a visionary at the helm. The component parts are strong from design to performance and back again; key Kneehigh/ Rice tropes are to be found throughout, but there’s not much in the way of the new here, it’s more a showcase of what we know can be done well and I think that it’s the story itself, quirky and daring in some if its subject matter as it is, which is just not quite gripping or dynamic enough to inspire in the absence of jaw-dropping staging.
There’s time yet though, and I eagerly await the next big thing from the Wise Children Company – perhaps there’s much to be said for the first production of a new company not being an out and out revelationary triumph – that’s an awful lot to live up to and this way, there’s simply a lot more to look forward to.
Wise Children plays at The Old Vic until November 10th 2018 and you can find tickets here.
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