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Wise Children at Richmond Theatre | Review

Wise ChildrenEmma Rice, you may remember, was the short-lived artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Her dismissal was a contentious affair which, to the outsider, looked like a clash between modernity and the theatre’s commitment
to authenticity. At the risk of crude simplification, she wanted to do things with the lighting that would have been impossible in Shakespeare’s day and therefore at odds with the ideal of reconstructing the conditions of that age.

Not that her tenure was proving unpopular with the public. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream was selling out nightly and was treading that well-worn path of dividing the critics. It’s worth mentioning that particular show in the light, or lighting, of what she has gone on to do in the past three years, given the wild and magical realism which animates the play. Something of its current runs through her latest venture, an extravagantly inventive adaptation of Wise Children, by the late novelist Angela Carter.

If she were still alive, the author would surely have applauded Rice’s stage version of a book which parades through the reader’s imagination like a street carnival. It tells of identical twin sisters, Dora and Nora Chance and their chaotically colourful family of origin. This is nothing if not dramatic, including the stage legend Melchior Hazard and his own twin Peregrine. As if to remind us of her own (and Rice’s) influences, the story kicks off on April 23rd, which is the date of Shakespeare’s birth – and death.

Like Carter’s book, Rice’s version can be seen as a celebration of the power of story-telling, myth-making, enactment, the primacy of invention in accounts we give of our lives. Its heart is deep in the realm of magical realism which, as she and Carter imply, is a truer portal to that debatable state of authenticity than any chronicle of dates and events in the unfolding of history.

Here time, age, identity, memory, age, gender, you-name-it, are up for grabs. The action revolves, literally, around the gloriously shabby hulk of an old caravan which shape-shifts as home, backdrop, stage, time-travelling vehicle between the joined-up worlds of ancestry and legacy. It is always going somewhere while yet remaining in the same place. Always on the brink of extinction but still claiming the raddled charisma of some gypsy narrator.
As adaptations go, this one pulls off the difficult trick of being true to the original through the thicks and thins of extravagant plotting, and the poetic evocation of the patch of south London which informed so much of Carter’s own lyrical writing.

Apart from all her other duties, Rice herself takes the key role of Nora Chance with a defiant and filthy swagger. As Carter did in her writing of it, she surrounds herself with an unstoppable and multi-tasking cast. Too many to mention in such an ensemble piece, but Paul Hunter is outstanding as Showgirl Dora, as is Mike Shepherd as her older self. Beautiful music, melodic and barbed, from Stu Barker, Alex Heane and composer Ian Ross.

What’s it all about? You tell me. That’s the whole point. You tell me, I tell you, we all tell each other. Sometimes a consensus emerges, other times it’s a chaos of memory and motivation. Bearing witness is what matters. Do it with everything you’ve got, and for the sheer joy of doing it. Hang on to the wisdom of childhood. That way you can’t go too far wrong. Neither does this.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

What a joy it is to dance and sing!
In Brixton, twin chorus girls Nora and Dora Chance are celebrating their 75th birthday. Over the river in Chelsea, their father – the greatest actor of his generation, Melchior Hazard – turns 100. If, that is, he’s their real father at all…

A big, bawdy tangle of theatrical joy and pain, Wise Children is a celebration of show business, family, forgiveness, and hope. Direct from its open in the West End, expect showgirls and Shakespeare, sex and scandal, mischief and mistaken identity – and butterflies by the thousand!

Emma Rice (Romantics Anonymous, Tristan & Yseult, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and Brief Encounter) brings her unique, musical and exuberantly impish vision to Angela Carter’s great last novel, Wise Children, which is also the namesake of her new Production Company.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (including interval)
Age guidance: 14+
Booking to 30th March 2019
Richmond Theatre
https://www.londontheatre1.com/theatres/richmond-theatre/

Author

  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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