The Old Vic Theatre in Southwark, South London has a reputation as being the home of much ground-breaking theatrical innovation in its illustrious 200 year history. Fitting then, that it is currently playing host to Emma Rice’s unique adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel and ‘love letter to the theatre’, Wise Children.
The tale of sisters, Nora and Dora Chance from ‘the bastard (south) side of the Thames’ and their lifelong determination to follow their itinerant father, Melchior into a successful showbusiness career takes on a life of its own in the hands of Rice. This production lifts what could have been a soapy drama into something of a circus-style spectacle which is almost more about the theatricality of the performance than the plot. We are greeted by a stage set with the title of the play up in lights and a large caravan which revolves, and is used as a projection screen to depict the key moments in the sisters’ lives. The cast appear more like a circus troupe than actors as the story unfolds by way of mime, music, song and dance. Impressive puppetry skills are also on display as first the young Melchior and his twin brother Peregrine, and then the infant Nora and Dora are brought to life. The puppets themselves are a credit to their designers; their capacity for expression displaying complex technical skills.
Mirabelle Grimaud and Bettrys Jones effectively depict the transition of Nora and Dora from childhood to young adult hood. The arrival of puberty and sexual awakening is made graphically and wordlessly clear. Skilled direction and choreography is also in evidence as the pair are transformed into glamorous showgirls portrayed by Omari Douglas and Melissa James. Dramatic sound and lighting effects effectively evoke the wartime experience of the girls and their theatre company. Later, the fate of their eccentric but beloved grandmother is made apparent in an arresting feat of lighting and choreography.
Although Rice’s Wise Children is most definitely a memorable visual performance, it does have an eye on its place in the world too. Contemporary themes are evident such as gender and race blind casting. The adult Dora Chance is played subtly by Gareth Snook. While this can be said to be a nod to the pantomime dame, Snook’s nuanced portrayal of the character suggests we are supposed to see the person behind the drag act.
It could be said, too, that the girls’ response to what life throws at them, chimes appropriately with the feminist overtones of the #metoo generation.
The ultimate impression left by Wise Children, however is that any social commentary is secondary to its aim to be a vibrant celebration of theatre and of life itself with all its rich colours and moods. Angela Carter’s words, ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ reverberate throughout the show. It’s a timely message for us all!