Friday 12 October 2018

Theatre Review: Wise Children (Old Vic)

"What a joy it is to dance and sing!" Those words form a refrain throughout Angela Carter's last novel Wise Children (1991) in which the teeming, complicated, theatrical family history of two 75-year-old Brixton-based twins, Dora and Nora Chance, the deserted illegitimate offspring of the Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, unfolds with the dizzying inventiveness and in the exuberant prose for which Carter was justly celebrated.

Stage-struck and Shakespeare-soaked, Carter's novel is both an ideal candidate for theatrical adaptation, and a challenging one. Still, there seem few directors better suited to the task than Emma Rice, who not only writes and directs this new version at the Old Vic but who has also named her new theatre company for the novel. "No one opens a book by Angela Carter in search of restraint," wrote Carol Shields, and no one goes to a Rice production in search of restraint, either. (Rice's great self-description - "I'm not a minimalist girl" - works equally well for Carter.) And following the tumult of her too-brief time at the Globe, it's heartening to find Rice already back in the saddle, and with her signature style very much intact.

Image: Steve Tanner 

That being said, I wouldn't rank Wise Children as one of Rice's best productions. The unabashed glee of her Midsummer Night's Dream or the charm of last year's lovely chocolate box musical Romantics Anonymous are not quite achieved here. Like Kneehigh's take on Steptoe and Son, Wise Children is a patchier effort and its seams sometimes show. Rice originally intended this production for the Globe, and I think it would have worked better there: various conceits and bits of audience interaction that might have made the show soar come off somewhat awkwardly in this staging. Too often - an animated flight over London is a case in point - the production seems to be signposting "enchantment" rather than actually creating it.

A lot of the comedy is strenous and forced, too. The great Katy Owen - previously Rice's water-pistol-toting Puck and pillar-rubbing Malvolio - certainly makes her mark as the twins' assertive adopted Mum, but some of the comic business she's given - saggy boobs, urination and all - is just plain crass. And does a mention of going to buy some clobber at Brixton Market really have to come complete with a dance interlude to Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue"? At such heavy-handed moments, Rice's recent essay about reading and adapting Carter seems, um, wiser than what's actually ended up on stage.

Still, there are some lovely touches throughout: charming puppetry, lively contributions from the on-stage musicians. The moments when the three sets of actors playing the twins at different ages - Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud, Omari Douglas and Melissa James, Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt - share the stage together have a magical Three Tall Women quality. While some plot elements and a number of characters have inevitably been snipped, a great deal of Carter's language has been retained and its extravagance enlivens the evening.

And what does come through vibrantly here is the case that the piece makes for 'illegitimacy," both in terms of family relations and theatrical form. While posh, declaiming Shakespeareans are lightly satirised (and, given Rice's recent Globe experiences, make of that "what you will"), entertainments such as music hall, panto, revue, and end-of-the-pier comedy are warmly celebrated. Rice's affection for those British traditions is palable, and the show's undoing of cultural hierarchy is as subversive as its insistence that our true families are those we choose for ourselves. The production's perspective is boldly matriarchal in a way that makes the final tableau (set to a song I won't reveal) both a hokey and a truly touching conclusion to the evening.

What a joy it is...? Well, some of the time.

Wise Children is booking at the Old Vic until 10 November. 

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