BWW Review: WISE CHILDREN, Bristol Old Vic
'Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people' writes Angela Carter in her 1992 book Wise Children and that is the starting point for Emma Rice's furiously fast adaptation in this, the first outing for her newly formed theatre company of the same name.
All the elements that have made Rice's name are present and correct. There's a playful, anarchic whirlwind of characters that change in the blink of an eye or the raising of a curtain to tell this expansive story.
We're introduced to twins Nora and Dora Chance on their 75th birthday where they take us on a journey of how they came to be, starting 'on the wrong side of the tracks'. Luckily, narrator Dora Chance (a superb Gareth Snook) is there to guide us through a tale that takes in theatrical dynasties, sordid affairs and illegitimate children.
Nora and Dora have been split apart from their father and famous actor Melchior for years, a man who had never publicly acknowledged them. While he played Shakespeare to great acclaim to the posh folk, they found their own path as showgirls in the dancehalls of South London on the 'wrong side' of the Thames.
Being on the wrong side is what Wise Children has most cause to explore. The playful trickery of the casting allows us to question the idea of legitimacy vs illegitimacy, right side vs the wrong side and high vs low brow. Great fun is had with the duality of gender and age and comedy and tragedy.
If it does occasionally all become a bit meta or clever-clever (their surnames are Chance and Hazard after all), Rice moves on swiftly, never settling for long. The first half passes whimsically enough but it's the second act that starts to tie the disparate strands together into something altogether more coherent. Behind the songs and dancing, there's tragedy lurking.
As ever, Rice has pulled together an ensemble with almost an embarrassment of riches. Kneehigh stalwart Katy Owen is a show stealer as Grandma Chance, who raises Nora and Dora as if they're her own (they could well be). Omari Douglas is unmissable as Showgirl Nora and Sam Archer is ever so charming as Young Peregrine, dancing his way around Vicki Mortimer's clever set.
Rice has form in adapting Carter's work and in the programme, she notes her close affinity to Carter's final words of Wise Children - ''What a joy it is, to dance and sing!'. In this show, it certainly is.
Photo Credit: Steve Tanner