BWW Review: WISE CHILDREN, Old Vic
Emma Rice is back after her kerfuffle with Shakespeare's Globe, debuting her brand new company with an adaptation of Angela Carter's novel of the same name. After being shown out of the Bard's doors last April, and following the company's funding controversy, she silences doubters by taking up residency at the Old Vic with a gloriously colourful and unashamedly bold first show.
Carter's intricate plot has encountered Rice's scissors, and many characters have fallen victim to her firm editing process, but the final product is solid and comes off as a worldly fable.
Faded chorus girls and twins Nora (Mirabelle Gremaud, Omari Douglas, Etta Murfitt - in order of age) and Dora Chance (Bettrys Jones, Melissa James, Gareth Snook) are celebrating their 70th birthday when they receive an invitation to celebrate their father's 100th on the same day. What ensues is a tale of family and theatre with plenty of enigmatic characters and borderline absurd situations.
The director's surrealism is a perfect fit for the story. Timelines and events flow seamlessly through Rice's hands, who creates a layered piece that hides darker themes under a glitzy glaze. She retains Carter's cleverness and wit while leaving scope for the audience's wonder to roam, accompanied by Ian Ross' jazzy score.
The space is scattered with elements professing her strong devotion to the craft which imbues Carter's book as well: aesthetically curated by Vicki Mortimer, wings and flies are left bare, while dressing-room mirrors and stage lights amplify the metatheatrical aspects of the show, and circus lights radiate on the set.
It's pure, unadulterated theatre with an airtight company, subject, direction, and production. Rice not only blind-casts the whole piece, but single-handedly gives a masterclass on how to play with gender. The surrealism of the theme surely helps with this and audiences won't question why Nora and Dora fluctuate between man and woman through their lives.
By giving them both male and female partners, as well as casting them as both genders, she removes the social construct from the narrative, focusing on the inherent meaning of the story. That's significant when we consider the role of the twins' relationship with their father Melchior (Ankur Bahl and Paul Hunter) and his brother Peregrine (Sam Archer and Mike Shepherd), which is in turn a study of abuse and affection (or lack thereof).
As well as the targeted social critique and the subtle way this is achieved, the show is also funny and entertaining, presenting some incredible acting prowess and near-perfect comedic timing from the entirety of the cast.
An embarrassment of riches, they manage to shed new light on the same roles by picking them up at various stages in their lives. Common features run through the diverse performances, building cohesive and believable characters.
An undoubtedly successful debut outing for Rice's company, Wise Children tugs at the heart of human experience, as well as embodying the fascination and reverence that surround theatre as a work of art and love.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner