Writer: Emma Rice, adapted from the novel by Angela Carter
Director: Emma Rice
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Wise Children is the acclaimed final novel by Angela Carter, now adapted by Emma Rice as the inaugural production of her new company, also called Wise Children, following her tenure as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe.
The plot concerns twin girls, Nora and Dora Chance, and their chequered career as showgirls. They are the illegitimate daughters of Melchior Hazard, a grand old man of the theatre. He, too, is a twin and has been estranged from his daughters for some time – indeed he has never acknowledged the girls as his own. The show starts on 23 April 1989, the girls’ 75th birthday, as well as the 100th birthday of Melchior and his brother Peregrine, when the girls get an unexpected invitation to Melchior’s birthday party.
We are then whisked back in time to learn more of Nora and Dora’s history, how they were abandoned and brought up by Grandma Chance, how Peregrine, flits in and out of their lives in between studying butterflies of the world and how they become showgirls in an increasingly twisted plot involving incest, infidelity and multiple sets of twins.
Rice’s experience with Kneehigh Theatre is apparent in the use of puppetry and physicality making the whole a feast for the eyes. This is a fast-moving production with a healthy sense of humour. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, evokes a film set or empty stage, ensuring we can move swiftly between locations and times as the story, largely narrated by the 75-year-old Dora, unfolds in all its complexity. Contemporary songs are used and fit so well that one might think they were specially written. Simon Baker’s soundscape, with music composed by Ian Ross, enhances the experience, signalling changes of mood from light to dark effectively.
Rice’s sure directorial hand serves up a truly joyous evening supported by the cast of only 12 – all on stage almost the whole time. Cast members move seamlessly between the chorus and playing multiple rôles as the story progresses; such is the skill with costume and differentiation we are never in any doubt as to who is who – a potential problem when most characters are played by at least two or three actors (and often at least one puppet) in different periods of their lives.
Rice is also clear that her casting decisions will have a major impact on the creative process and chooses her cast to form the ‘collective imagination’; although she professes to dislike the terms ‘colour-blind’ or ‘gender blind’ when casting, that is in effect how she does cast, so at different times, Nora and Dora, in particular, are played by male and female actors, black and white. And it works: Rice’s vision is so powerful and her cast so supportive that the whole just gels into a totally joyous and ultimately uplifting time – even if some of the themes are, in fact, really quite dark.
A masterstroke of casting is Gareth Snook as the 75-year-old Dora. His performance is the lynchpin holding the whole together as we experience the story through Dora’s eyes. Snook is never less than believable as Dora as we gleefully suspend disbelief. Omari Douglas’s Showgirl Nora is a delight reminding one of a young Josephine Baker – and what a voice! He is graceful and epitomises the jealousy that Nora feels towards the more hedonistic lifestyle of Dora (played at this point by Melissa James). Ankur Bahl and Paul Hunter as young and old Melchior respectively relish in this character’s unpleasantness, while Sam Archer and Mike Shepherd bring an ambiguity to Peregrine, always popular with the girls but with significant flaws in his character. Katy Owen is wonderfully over the top as Grandma Chance, filling the stage with exuberance and noise whenever she appears. At this performance, the present day Nora was played by Rice herself. While she is subservient to Dora in the storytelling, she still provides great support to Snook’s Dora
Wise Children defies description: a joy from start to finish, it really has to be experienced. A loud, exuberant, thought-provoking technicolor production, this will live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to experience it.
Runs Until 6 April 2019 and on tour | Image: Steve Tanner