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Wise Children

by on 28 March 2019

Chance Relations

Wise Children

Adapted by Emma Rice, from the novel by Angela Carter

Old Vic and Wise Children, Richmond Theatre, until 30th March, then on tour until 6th April

a review by Matthew Grierson

There are at least three sets of twins in Wise Children – it’s hard to count, given they’re each portrayed by several different pairs of actors – and in their youth one brace of brothers, Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, are distinguished by their respective interests in art and fun. Happily the play itself makes no such distinction: as far as Angela Carter and Emma Rice are concerned, art and fun are identical.

In fact this play has little truck with binaries of any kind, and makes a virtue of the cast’s capacity to double, as well as their universal excellence in dance, song, gymnastics and lightning-quick costume changes. Gender is equally fluid, with twins Nora and Dora Chance portrayed by men for at least some of their lives, flaunting the show’s debt to panto and music hall.

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Coupled with the longish timespan of 75 years, the cross-dressing also put me in mind of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – an impression only reinforced by the fact that the passage of time from the First World War to the dying days of Thatcherism barely registers outside the ageing of the characters, and this is a London as much mythic as historical. In short, time passes, and the Chance-Hazard family’s antics remain centre stage.

The show’s conceit is that, on their 75th birthday, Dora and Nora (Gareth Snook and Rice herself) are looking back on their lives “sarf” of the river, and forward to a party on the opposite bank that evening. These Chelsea festivities are not being held in their honour, however, but celebrate the 100th birthday of famous thesp and infamous philanderer Melchior Hazard (by this stage, Paul Hunter), also the Chances’ biological father.

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This prompts the re-enactment of the family story, a digression that is actually the story itself. Nora and Dora narrate, and the lives of their parents and grandparents are recreated by a troupe of performers who weave effortlessly in and out of character around them. The family’s theatrical lineage means we are often watching plays within plays within plays, in a space that is part dressing room, part stage and entirely magical.

Central to the set is a caravan representing the Chances’ Brixton home, the gaudy décor of which, perhaps resembling the cover of one of Carter’s novels, is revealed as it is spun out centre stage. Its presence cannot help but recall Jerusalem, and like Jez Butterworth’s play this one is interested in the idea of Englishness, and more so in reworking Shakespeare. (Did I mention that Dora, Nora, Melchior and Peregrine were all born on 23rd April?)

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Even the title twists the older proverb that Launcelot Gobbo riffs on in The Merchant of Venice, ‘it is a wise father that knows its own child’. From hereonin, Wise Children never stops taking and tweaking, as is cheekily emblematised in the show by the Melchior-managed revue that shoots to the Chance sisters to stardom, What You Will.

The family’s or families’ story plays out like the Folio’s greatest hits, what with murdered parents, transvestite twins, embedded plays, bed tricks and spurned spouses, at the same time mixing it with the finest music hall tradition, a mash-up neatly encapsulated in the Chance sisters’ address at 49 Bard Lane, Brixton.

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The doubling and trebling of cast members works cleverly to unite high culture and low, too: Hunter, for instance, is equally but distinctly charismatic as end-of-the-pier entertainer Gorgeous George and aged ham Melchior. He even ends up marrying himself, sort of, when he elopes with his earlier incarnation (Ankur Bahl) once the latter reappears, dizzyingly and delightfully, as a young American hoofer.

Speaking of footwork, Omari Douglas has already stolen several scenes as a dancer-cum-mime before he drags up as Showgirl Nora to brilliant effect, and he’s ably matched by Melissa James’s Showgirl Dora. As the teenage twins emerge as individual characters, though, neither can help falling for Patrycja Kujawska’s taciturn Blue-Eyed Boy … Cue a series of acrobatic simulations of sex.

Without a word of salaciousness, the numerous couplings between various combinations of characters are one of the play’s many highlights, each act done with a playful articulation and sense of fun. These coital encounters are not without their shadows all the same. Melchior and Peregrine’s mother is killed by jealous husband Ranulph, while Nora has a miscarriage, which conveyed respectively through a mime to music and the deft deployment of a groundsheet and red paint, are testament to the production’s faultless stagecraft.

The one exception to the spectacular lovemaking is also the one unsuccessful element of the play. The first act hints at Nora’s abuse by Uncle Peregrine, and the closing scene confirms this, striking at first a joyous and then a recriminatory note. While the theme of incest is toyed with elsewhere in the show, notably in two Lears’ marriages to their Cordelias and George’s pier-end patter, it’s difficult to get this particular worm back in the can after it’s been opened. Perhaps the relationship is part of the novel that Rice, as adaptor, was neither able to excise nor resolve?

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Elsewhere, Mike Shepherd as old Peregrine takes his nieces for a ride in an altogether more wholesome fashion, though at the wheel he suggests he’s had driving lessons from Mr Toad. Such choreographed chaos corresponds with well-drilled song-and-dance numbers throughout, whether the tunes are pastiches from the jazz age or pop hits of the 80s (there’s a rousing routine to Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue in homage to the Brixton setting).

Without exception the cast are exceptional, and a reviewer less pressed for time and space than yours truly could afford to effuse over them all. Still, the scary, brattish junior Hazards must merit a mention, as does Katy Owen as Grandma Chance, shimmying about the place in a nude suit and vowing that not even Hitler will stand between her and another milk stout. Bless her. And as if you don’t think the cast are talented enough already, they all prove very handy with the puppets that pepper proceedings, too – flames, butterflies and babes in arms are all marionetted to enrich the Chances’ relations.

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I could pseud and enthuse all night about this theatrical triumph, but that might prevent you catching Wise Children at Richmond before it closes. At bottom, and indeed other orifices you may care to name, the play is a delight, never losing sight of the darkness but always filling it with greasepaint and sawdust, glitter and neon.

Matthew Grierson
March 2019

Photography courtesy of Target Live

From → Musicals, Reviews

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