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Wise Children review at Old Vic, London – ‘mess, melancholy and magic’

Omari Douglas and Melissa James in Wise Children at the Old Vic, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This is a labour of love if ever there was one. Emma Rice’s first new production, after her brief, troubled stint at Shakespeare’s Globe, is an adaptation of Angela Carter’s final novel Wise Children.

Rice has demonstrated an affinity for Carter in the past. She directed a version of Carter’s Nights at the Circus back in 2006 that captured the subversive spirit of the novel, and has even named her new company after the book.

It’s easy to see why it would appeal to her. Carter’s novel is saturated with magic and a love of theatre in all its forms, from music hall to Shakespeare to end-of-the pier comedy.

It tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, identical twin daughters of famed Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, though a question mark hangs over their true parentage. On the day of their 75th birthday the twins find themselves sifting through their memories, reminiscing about their own stage careers, their past loves and the grandmother who raised them.

Rice has assembled a group of her favourite collaborators to tell their story. 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.

Three different pairs of actors play Dora and Nora as they grow from girls into women; the genders, races and accents of the performers change as they age.

Rice’s adaptation does not shy away from the plot’s more subversive elements. It’s chock-full of bonking and incest – though it actually contains less bonking and incest than the novel – and 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 a its power to transform and enchant.

Rice sacrifices some of the intricacy and symmetry of Carter’s pastiche Shakespearean plot along the way, while Ian Ross’ music is a bit of a mixed bag, merging 1980s pop with original songs. A version of Electric Avenue goes down a treat however, especially as Vicki Mortimer’s rotating caravan set feels more like a nod to the itinerant life of the touring hoofer than it is an evocation of Brixton – the novel is also very much an ode to Carter’s beloved south London, “the bastard side of the Thames”.

The absence of aerial work is notable given that the image of flying lovers has recurred so often throughout Rice’s work. For all the theatrical hijinks, this feels most like a meditation on ageing than anything else. All the characters in Rice’s staging are gradually replaced by older versions of themselves, their clothes fading and hair greying. This makes for a messy and often melancholy experience, frequently magical and pleasingly weird; not Rice’s most soaring work perhaps but still a joy.

Emma Rice on Wise Children: ‘It’s about keeping your innocence while harnessing your power’

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Emma Rice launches her new company with a messy, melancholic and frequently magical staging of Angela Carter's final novel