York Theatre Royal, 6 March 2019
It doesn’t take long to realise why Emma Rice might have chosen to adapt Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children, for the debut of her new company bearing the same name. An unapologetic celebration of theatricality in all its glorious, glamorous, shady and seedy forms, it allows Rice to do what she (and Carter) does best, which is to tell stories about the very base aspects of what it is to be human in the most magical, dark and captivating ways.
Wise Children begins on the 75th birthday of identical twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, played by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt respectively, and narrates the tale of their theatrical dynasty family. We follow the Chance twins from conception through their lives as showgirls in a tale that is comedic and tragic in equal measure, and explores themes of illegitimacy, fatherhood, womanhood, and the overwhelming joy but great despair and sacrifice that comes with choosing to live a life fearlessly doing what you love.
The production is an ensemble piece through and through, and when I say there isn’t a performer in the show who isn’t incredible, I truly mean it. Kneehigh regular (there are a few of them in this production and I am not complaining) Katy Owen steals the show as the nude and crude adoptive mother of the twins, Grandma Chance, and again later as one half of the rambunctious Hazard twins. Mirabelle Gremaud is enchanting as Young Nora and Pretty Kitty, as well as in several ear-tingling musical moments, and Melissa James and Omari Douglas are the embodiment of wide-eyed seductive youth as Showgirl Dora and Nora.
There casting is as much an exercise in imagination and theatricality as the story itself. Characters are not bound by rules of gender, race or nationality, in a way that riffs on identity, gender and ageing, and harks back to theatre’s gender-bending Shakespearean past.
Vicki Mortimer’s beautifully crafted set and Malcolm Rippeth’s often spellbinding lighting design move the play seamlessly through time and place while always maintaining a sense of continuity. We see glimpses of the wings, see the actors warming up their impossibly pliable limbs before the show starts and chatting amongst themselves and the audience in the interval. After all, this is as much a story of what goes on behind the curtain as in front of it.
The production gives to its audience richly – we are flung from high brow to low brow, joy to despair in the blink of an eye, through song, dance, sex and heartbreak. Where at times the theatrical in-jokes can feel a little smug, they never linger for long enough for the feeling to stick.
Wise Children is carnivalesque, Shakespearean and at times surreal – a fairy tale that most certainly isn’t suitable for children. For all its riotous joy, there is always a sense of darkness just beneath the surface. Rice calls Carter’s book a ‘love letter to theatre’, and I can’t see how anyone who has fallen for the theatre could not love this play.