Even after her unhappy time at the Globe, it seems nothing can dim Emma Rice’s joyous enthusiasm for the theatre. It’s on display from the very start – in fact, before the start as the cast are on stage, limbering up for their dance numbers and checking their faces in the brightly lit mirrors. Then Gareth Snook as Dora Chance takes up the story of Angela Carter’s Wise Children.
It’s a tale of a theatrical family split either side of the tracks by legitimacy in every sense of the word. And then we’re off careering through down-at-heel Brixton, the spangles and glitz of cabaret, the Blitz, roaring actor-managers, society Chelsea, and Brighton, conjured by a single bucket of sand. Along the way there are panto and puppets, grotesques and grand guignol, sex lessons from a very unusual Grandma song and dance, lots more sex and a glorious Alice in Wonderland logic that propels the twins through life. There is a plot but it’s almost secondary to the blithe spirits of Nora and Dora – girls just wanna have fun, as the final song sums it up – and it’s all pretty surreal as you’d expect from Carter.
The 75th birthday of twins Dora and Nora Chance (Etta Murfitt), showgirls par excellence is also the 100th birthday of their father Melchior Hazard, foremost Shakespearean actor of his day. Melchior is also a twin and he and his brother Peregrine loathe each other. The girls are the result of a brief encounter in a seedy theatrical boarding house before Melchior rose to fame and he has always refused to acknowledge them as his children. He offloads the responsibility on to Peregrine who is the excitingly adventurous lepidopterist who actually provides for them and cares for them – but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s the goodie. There’s a sting in that tail too. They are brought up by the foul-mouthed Grandma (no relation) Chance, a down-to-earth naturist, played in a mind-boggling fat suit by Katy Owen. The girls rise to fame and are even given a part in Melchior’s show. He has meanwhile married a rich society beauty (Patrycja Kujawska) and has two more (quite odious) twin girls.
This is only the half of it. The show is hilariously funny at times and also quite dark (incest, paedophilia, brutality). As Carter (and Dora) says, “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” Rice’s take on the ages and stages of the main characters is to have several people playing each one. So there are old and young Melchiors and Peregrines. Nora and Dora have four incarnations including a puppet version (beautifully designed by Lyndie Wright). Roles are not defined by race or sex and the twins in their chorus girl heyday are dazzlingly played by Melissa James and Omari Douglas.
And this is just as it should be in this world of changing identities. With dozens of Shakespeare references, (especially cross-dressing characters and themes of mistaken identity), it’s no surprise at the end when the wise children (and not so wise) do finally know their fathers. Wise Children is not just the name of the show, it’s also the name of Emma Rice’s new company. And, on the basis of this production, the Globe should be kicking themselves for not hanging onto her.
Wise Children at The Old Vic, The Cut, Lambeth, London SE1 8NB, until 10 November. Running time 2 hours 10 including an interval. Production images by Steve Tanner. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.