Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
21 October 2018
Emma Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at the Old Vic is genre-fluid and features much cross-gender casting. It’s every bit as magical as you would expect the (1991) magic realism novel to be when transformed for the stage.
Melissa James and Omari Douglas (foreground). Photo credit: Steve Tanner.
The play follows the novel’s structure and we begin towards the end of the story with twin sisters Dora (Gareth Snook) and Nora (Etta Murfitt) as heart-of-gold raddled hoofers on their seventy-fifth birthdays. They look back at theatre and music hall careers that span the Twenties as child performers right through to the early Thatcher years. It’s a memory play with two narrators.
Rice structures the drama as a series of tableaux vivants that spring into motion based around slick dance routines and wonderful handling of Great American Songbook favourites by multi-instrumentalist Ian Ross, a long-time collaborator with Rice since her days with the company Kneehigh. An exquisite arrangement of The Way You Look Tonight ran across much of the second act.
There are no less than five sets of twins and consistent mistaken identities. As the action nears our own time, a frightful pair of twins (Bettrys Jones and Katy Owen resourceful and skillful) studying at an elite drama school are used to lampoon everything from method acting to mannered styles of choreography. The music hall content is impressive with Paul Hunter excelling in a wholesale raid on the jokebook and persona of Max Miller who is of a piece with this world of actors’ digs, shabby hippodromes and sexual innuendo.
The wings are deliberately left open so that we can see roles being assumed and costumes donned, initially under the gaze of an Edwardian actor-manager archetype (Hunter again) who likes to be touchy-feely with the talent. Sound familiar?
Emma Rice proves adept not just at filleting the plot of the novel but knowing when to let the cast run amok with the comic scenes and when to rein them in. There are delicious self-referencing gags including Snook as Dora reflecting that s/he “looks like a female impersonator.” It was hardly likely with the source material but the play never takes itself too seriously.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Steve Tanner.
I’d be surprised if some of the youngsters in the audience didn’t come out stage-struck and wanting a career in the theatre though you would have to hope that their lives would turn out to be less tawdry. However wise these children may be, nobody is quite sure who their natural parents are, and illegitimacy is topped by a knowing incestuous coupling at the close.
You would think Emma Rice might have had enough of Shakespeare based on recent experience. The novel is of course marinated in it and far from dodging this content, Rice presents it fully. We begin with the good gag of a cross-dressing Hamlet seducing her Horatio, and while there is no overall controlling figure at the end, the audience realizes that the lives we have been watching were always spirits and likely to melt into thin air.
Reservations? Once or twice you hear a creaking at the seams as unwieldy elements of the novel are shoehorned in. We might have been spared a miscarriage on stage, and Carter’s explicit accusations of pedophilia against Lewis Carroll (the jury is still out on his guilt) also struck me as unnecessary. There was one too many jibes about male patriarchy in a depiction of a theatrical society where, at last, women were beginning to be able to make a living wage as legitimate performers. Just occasionally the musical numbers did nothing to move the plot along and the ones with a Shakespeare theme teetered on a poor man’s Kiss Me Kate or The Boys From Syracuse.
Wise Children is not just a love letter to Shakespeare or London or theatre or music hall; it’s a paean to the unalloyed pleasures of singing and dancing for their own sake. Dora and Nora remind us constantly that they are from the wrong side of the tracks and they lose their mother to a WWII bomb. Emma Rice will have gauged all this when choosing the Old Vic which is south of the river and a survivor of the Blitz. The production company is even called Wise Children; it is Rice’s post-Kneehigh venture and has been the resident group at the Old Vic during the project. The play tours to Bristol, Manchester and York early in 2019.