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Wise Children – Theatre Royal, York

Writer: Angela Carter
Adapted by: Emma Rice
Director: Emma Rice
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Composer/Musical Director: Ian Ross
Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Wise Children is the name of a new theatre company founded by Emma Rice, after her long tenure of the role of Artistic Director of Kneehigh and her rather shorter stay at Shakespeare’s Globe. Wise Children is also the name of the company’s first production, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s last novel, all magic realism, love of the theatre and distrust of conventionality. The choice of name for the company reflects the synergy between Rice’s approach and the original material for this production.

Wise Children, as the title implies, deals with fathers and their children, specifically the Hazards and the Chances – names that are not idly chosen. On the occasion of the 100th birthday of the great Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard, he summons his two daughters, the former showgirls Nora and Dora Chance, to his birthday party – if they are his daughters. He disowned them at their birth 75 years previously – it’s their birthday, too – and his twin brother Peregrine, who may also be alive, but has not been seen for years, could well be their father. Either way, it was the coarse-grained theatrical landlady with a heart of gold, Grandma Chance, who brought them up.

Nora and Dora tell their story pretty much sequentially, with two pairs of actors taking on the roles of their younger selves. In the first half, in particular, the play seems at times to be as much a love letter to the theatre as the story of the Chance twins. Melchior throughout speaks almost entirely in cunningly sourced Shakespearean quotations and, when his theatre burns down, even brings out the famous R.B. Sheridan bon mot about taking a glass of wine at his own fireside. The splendidly outrageous comedian, Gorgeous George, works his way through Max Miller’s best gags.

The Noel Coward line about the potency of cheap music gets an airing, though in truth there’s nothing cheap about such songs as “The way you look tonight”, particularly with such a delicately marimba-tinged accompaniment. And the showgirl Chance twins dance up a storm!

Rice and her team throw everything at the production: puppets, videos, an excellent and versatile band (only three, but augmented by several of the actors) and a terrific cast of twelve who go fearlessly over the top, Grandma (Katy Owen) rather excessively so. The set is as theatrical as the acting, with dressing room mirrors and a caravan with its hint of the circus; the costumes are at least as extravagant as the performers inside them.

The small amount of cross-gender casting worked perfectly. Gareth Snook (Dora) is an engaging and confiding narrator, both (s)he and Etta Murfitt (Nora) connoisseurs of nostalgia. Omari Douglas combines with Melissa James in some spectacular show routines to Murfitt’s choreography. Some inspired doubling brings such treats as Paul Hunter as low comedian, flamboyant actor-manager and theatre caretaker.

Some doubts remain, oddly enough about the material itself. The actual story – the family feuding, the doubts about paternity – comes over as rather thin. In the second half, as the narrative becomes more prominent, we miss the song and dance, the magic and the blue gags.

Touring nationwide | Image: Steve Tanner

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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