Wise Children: Master-Mistresses of play

Wise Children, Photography by Steve Tanner

Wise Children, Photography by Steve Tanner

Emma Rice brings her unique, exuberantly impish vision to Angela Carter’s great last novel, Wise Children, launching her new theatre company of the same name. Fans of either portfolio won’t be disappointed; you’ll find here all the magic, colour and mischief both Rice and Carter are known for. Sumptuously aesthetic as ever, this fresh adaptation is a love letter to theatre, in all its sparkling glamour, vulnerability and unparalleled intimacy.

Brixton-bred chorus twins Dora and Nora Chance find their voices through multiple bodies in the incredibly talented Kneehigh-threaded ensemble cast, who take turns portraying different eras in the sisters’ lives. The perfect troupe come together in a nurturing bundle to tumble forth a fantastical story of love, family, forgiveness and hope spanning generations. All the familiar theatrical tricks are there, celebrated in exposed craft and utterly beguiling in their brazen ownership of mysteries revealed.

This passionate, empowered agency is forefront in this meta layer cake of Shakespearean conceits; families are not what they seem, neither are lovers, and siblings trade memories as well as faces. You can’t take your eyes off these characters or their rich surroundings. Pop songs and original music usher us through the ages, composed and lead by Ian Ross and supported by Alex Heane and Stu Baker. Puppets by Lyndie Wright, animation by Beth Carter and Stuart Mitchell, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and set and costume by Vicki Mortimer all go exactly where the story require them. Every element is top of its game, and only shines brighter in its response to the rest.

“Let’s have all the skeletons out of the closet, today, of all days!” It’s April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday. Not to mention the twins’ seventy-fifth. Over the river in Chelsea, their father and greatest actor of his generation Melchior Hazard turns 100 on the same day. As does his twin brother Peregrine. Dor’ and Nor’ recount for us their unbelievable, unadulterated life story – a bawdy tangle of dreams, joy, bodies and heartbreak.

While we’re first reeled in by charming younger versions of Peregrine (Sam Archer) and Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl), juxtaposed with the twins in their latest personas – Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt as be-big-spectacled caravan spinsters in silk dressing gowns – it is the showgirl-age Dora (Melissa James) and Nora (Omari Douglas) who really steal your heart. We watch as these bubbling, unstoppable girls come of age, discovering fame, meaning and heartache again and again. From Paul Hunter’s perfectly pitched Brighton Pier comedian-of-yore Gorgeous George, to Katy Owens’ knowingly panto-ripe Grandma Chance, to Mirabelle Gremaud’s ethereal singing, it’s impossible not to fall in love yourself. The show is achingly poignant in its embrace of the rough with the smooth. Mike Shepherd’s older Peregrine is a tender and recognisable soul. Patrycja Kujawska’s Lady Atlanta is grounded, kind, always noticing the underdogs. Bettrys Jones creates a memorably spiteful sprite as Saskia Hazard.

The story shifts gears towards its twilight, pushing open doors and dredging up details of the twins’ past, their many selves collecting upon the stage to reminisce and to dissect. More than that, to reach each other. A powerful sense of satisfaction and comfort that nostalgia never gives us is found in the tying of these loose ends, even as they fray into countless strands of ‘what if’ and ‘should have’ for our protagonists. The company’s love and dedication to each other and to each character is palpable, and infectious. Always looking at the bright side from “the wrong side of the tracks”, our sturdy-spirited heroes take us right to the heart of Wise Children’s message: come and play.

One can only hope we’ll see more of them in York. The show continues at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 16th March. Watch the trailer and get your tickets here.

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