Wise Children (#30plays30days – 24)

Wise Children (#30plays30days – 24)

This last week’s schedule of online theatre going has encompassed some deliciously left field stuff, none more so than Emma Rice’s adaptation of Angel Carter’s Wise Children. A meta-theatrical show about the world of theatre viewed from both in front of and behind the curtain, it is also the tale of the intertwined Chance and Hazard families (names absolutely significant) and their passage through what Lady Bracknell would describe as “a life crowded with incident”.


The main characters Dora and Nora Chance are identical twins and celebrating their 75th birthday. We learn that their biological father, actor-manager Melchior Hazard, refused to acknowledge them and that they were raised by Grandma Chance supported by Melchior’s twin brother Peregrine a sometime lepidopterist who literally flits in and out of their lives. Seduced by the world of the theatre Dora and Nora become show girls; they also hope this will somehow bring them closer to their father. He has married and fathered, you’ve guessed it, a second pair of twins Saskia and Imogen – temperamentally the polar opposites of the older pair.


Even on a casual glance there are a lot of twins to deal with and although it’s simple enough to work out who pairs with who through the costuming, Rice plays with the idea even more by casting totally freely and paying little regard to physical appearance, gender, age or the skin colour of her actors. Dora and Nora themselves are played by three pairs of actors (four if you count the baby puppets) at different stages of their lives. The seven year olds are two female performers – one with a distinct accent, the adults are a white woman and a black man and the older versions are again actually male and female. While this is potentially a highly confusing combination the six performers find a through line which convinces you that you are watching the same characters throughout. The exuberance of the performances, the wittiness of the script and the conviction of the direction means the idea is carried through with (appropriately) theatrical brio. If you’re going to play with the whole business of casting, you might as well go all out there.


I was particularly taken with the middle pairing of Melissa James and Omari Douglas who play the twins in their heyday and treat us to some fabulous dance routines courtesy of choreographer Etta Murfitt who also plays the older Nora – apparently the theme of doubling carries itself through to the creative team as well. As key narrator older Dora, Gareth Snook, has a nice line in drily camp delivery although he’s also very good in some of the show’s more tender moments too. Sam Archer as the younger Peregrine and Paul Hunter as the older Melchior are very good value. The latter also takes on the role of music hall comic Gorgeous George whose innuendo- laden routines are clearly based on the legendary Max Miller. Stealing the show every time she appears is Rice regular Katy Owen as the vegetarian, nudist, opinionated, speak as you find, heart of gold Grandma Chance. Owen walks a very fine line with her performance evoking the spirit of the “Carry On…” films and a pantomime dame but somehow manages to pull it off within the carnivalesque atmosphere of the production.


For, indeed, the show (and I think it’s right to refer to it as a show rather than a play) is a whirling carnival of colour. There’s a live band (MD Ian Ross), there’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s puppetry (Lyndie and Sarah Wright), there’s gaudy costumes and make up, there’s an old caravan as a backdrop (Vicki Mortimer), there’s superb use of lighting (Malcolm Rippeth). It is clear that attention has been paid not only to the performances but to all aspects of the production and in that sense, it is absolutely Emma Rice’s baby. Rice was criticised during her tenure at The Globe for kitchen sink directing – i.e. throwing everything you’ve got at a production in the hope that some of it will stick. Personally I think it’s rather more thought out than that and that every element is designed to add another layer to the overall effect. In this production it works but then Rice is building a show from scratch rather than, as was seen, tampering unnecessarily with the classics.


“What a joy it is to dance and sing!” is a phrase repeated throughout the play. As the first big hitter in the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine season Wild Children is an irrepressible and jubilant production. Let’s hope that the rest of the offerings will be as life enhancing as this wonderfully exuberant theatrical tonic.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Wise Children is available as part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine on their iPlayer. Click here

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4 thoughts on “Wise Children (#30plays30days – 24)

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