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Emma Rice’s Wise Children at the Old Vic, London – review round-up

The cast of Wise Children. Photo: Steve Tanner
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Emma Rice is back. After her acrimonious departure from Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year, the former artistic director of Kneehigh returns with a new company and a new show. Wise Children are at the Old Vic with their first production – er, Wise Children – until November 10th, when the show embarks on a six-month national tour.

Wise Children is an adaptation of Angela Carter’s 1991 book of the same name. Her last novel before her death in 1992, it is a joyously messy story of twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, their lifelong love of performance and their brilliantly bizarre theatrical family.

Rice’s stage version has an ensemble of twelve and a live band, plus a set design by Vicki Mortimer, music from Ian Ross, and choreography from Etta Murfitt. It’s also gender and ethnicity-blind, with the diverse cast trading roles throughout.

But will Wise Children cause a splash with its self-titled debut? Will the ghosts of the Globe be dispelled in typically raucous, typically Rice fashion? Will the critics rejoice in Rice’s return?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Wise Children – Celebrating Showbiz

Angela Carter’s Wise Children is a book of substantial scope, flitting backwards and forwards in time to chart the adventures and escapades of a sensational showbiz family. How well does its sprawling story spill onto the stage in Rice’s adaptation?

Most critics think the switch from page to stage is a successful one, with plenty pointing out the show’s appropriate emphasis on the lure of live performance, warts and all.

“Part of what makes Wise Children (the book) a good fit for the stage is that there’s so much of it,” writes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “Wise Children (the play) is a gleefully breakneck night of storytelling that relishes in the many lurid details of the extremely complex story of intertwined Chance and Hazard clans. Bits have been cut, but the show revels in the epicness of the tale. Loads of stuff happens, at a great giddy clip.”

“Rice’s adaptation does not shy away from the plot’s more subversive elements,” adds Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “It’s chock-full of bonking and incest – though it actually contains less bonking and incest than the novel. There are also a couple of rather on-the-nose jokes about old-fashioned actor-managers who are forever taking liberties with the talent. The whole thing comes across as one huge love letter to theatre, albeit one that encompasses its seedier aspects as well its power to transform and enchant.”

“Aptly, it’s a story of ageing and rebirth, steeped in Shakespeare and canny about the problems of his status as a national treasure,” says Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “It delights in the idea of doubleness and division – twins and mirror images, communities broken in half, the north and south sides of London – as well as in the skew-whiff and the off-kilter, whether it’s cross-dressing or the crossed wires of comic misadventure.”

“It is a paean to the joys of living on the wrong side of the tracks,” praises Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★). “It is a celebration of the value of family: biological, surrogate, professional or all of the above. And with its blend of music hall and circus, of high drama and high comedy, it’s a summation of everything she does best.”

In fact, murmurs of complaint are few and far between. Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★) calls the show’s story “a decidedly mixed bag” that’s “exposition-heavy and tonally scattershot” and Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) finds it “hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing feels like a bit of a theatrical in-joke.”

“Extended skits about RADA training techniques and the inaccessibility of Chichester may easily soar over a lot of audience members’ heads, and it’ll be interesting to see how the London-centric narrative plays while the show’s on tour,” he observes.

Oman Douglas and Melissa James. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Wise Children – Recognisably Rice

The story sits well on stage, then, but what about the way it’s told? Is Rice’s direction as gleeful and giddy as it ever was? Of course it is. “The Rice style – a sort of wild, knowing, joyous descendant of vaudeville – is very much in evidence,” reports Lukowski.

“Full of bonking and bawdy and wilful staginess, Rice’s adaptation careens forwards on sheer brio, with the Chances played by one set of puppets and three pairs of actors – most notably, at their dancing peak, by Melissa James and Omari Douglas – whose genders and ethnicities switch at each turn,” he explains.

“The production is a bit mad,” chimes Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “There are so many inventive touches, you almost wish it was reined in by 25%. Yet that is the appeal of an Emma Rice show: the whole thing is so dolloped with theatrical bombast, so suffused with warmth, it finally melts you into submission.”

“It is a spectacular show, distilling the carnivalesque spirit of the book yet managing to control its many unruly parts and surfeit of imagination,” writes Arifa Akbar (The Guardian, ★★★★), while Hitchings reckons that “Rice does justice to the verve and racy humour of Carter’s writing, and the result is a pleasing oddity, tinged with melancholy yet joyous and inventive.”

“It’s pure, unadulterated theatre with an airtight company, subject, direction and production,” says Cindy Marcolina (Broadway World, ★★★★★). “Rice not only blind-casts the whole piece, but single-handedly gives a masterclass on how to play with gender.”

“If Emma Rice’s ill-fated couple of years running Shakespeare’s Globe in any way damaged her reputation as the most relentlessly inventive British theatre director of the 21st century, her first show running her own company puts that right in less than three hours of pulsating playacting,” asserts Maxwell. “A controlled explosion of theatrical glee.”

It’s “a messy and often melancholy experience, frequently magical and pleasingly weird”, according to Tripney, who opines that it’s “not Rice’s most soaring work perhaps but still a joy”.

It’s only Wood that won’t really join the party: “There’s a mightily infectious sense of euphoria and celebration, particularly of female solidarity, at the heart of both Wise Children and its name-bearing company,” he concludes. “But compared to the romantic joys of Rice’s other shows like Romantics Anonymous or the calamitous grace of something like Tristan and Yseult, under the near-constant tungsten glow of lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth’s fairy lights, Wise Children has a habit of feeling, sadly, a bit beige.”

Wise Children – The Usual Suspects

Rice remains Rice, then, and her exuberant staging of Carter’s expansive epic bursts with theatricality. But does the cast match up to her madcap mania?

“Rice has assembled a group of her favourite collaborators to tell their story,” says Tripney. “With fake bosoms and belly, Katy Owen – such a wonderful Puck in Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – plays the girls’ magnificently coarse and frequently nude Grandma Chance, while current Kneehigh artistic director Mike Shepherd plays Peregrine, the centenarian brother of Paul Hunter’s old rogue Melchior.”

It’s Owen who snatches the lion’s share of the plaudits. She’s “brilliantly vibrant” according to Ben Dowell (Radio Times, ★★★★), “absolutely sensational” according to Lukowski and “steals the show with saucy double entendres and fantastic physical comedy” according to Akbar.

But there’s plenty more praise for the cast to share around – Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) praises the “rich work” of a “stunning ensemble” – and there’s even a little love for Ian Ross’s music, which Dowell labels “a delightful, cheery mess”.

Wise Children – Is it any good?

Yes, it’s good. Wise Children’s first show is perhaps not an all-time classic, but its certainly recognisably Rice – joyful, jubilant and utterly, utterly theatrical. Carter’s sprawling story makes sense on stage, the cast cavorts with abandon, and Rice does her thing. A phalanx of four-star reviews suggest that the post-Globe Rice renaissance is off to a solid start.

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