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Wise Children by Angela Carter at The Old Vic Theatre | Review

Showgirl Dora (Melissa James) and Showgirl Nora (Omari Douglas) in Wise Children at The Old Vic. Photo by Steve Tanner
Showgirl Dora (Melissa James) and Showgirl Nora (Omari Douglas) in Wise Children at The Old Vic. Photo by Steve Tanner

There’s tea; and there’s high tea. Similarly, I would suggest, there’s pantomime; and there’s high pantomime. Wise Children would seem to fall into the latter category as it differentiates from ordinary common or garden pantomime by certain distinguishing features: it’s not performed exclusively at Christmas; it inhabits a prestigious London theatre; it has a troupe of top-class actors, musicians and dancers; it has a big-name adaptor/director; there’s an absence of C list celebrity (soap opera) leads; and there’s the ability to throw money at it to secure top artistes/technicians/designers/hardware (principal partner, Royal Bank of Canada). The show is wearily Luvvie-heavy with in-joke references to Rada, Chichester and the Royal Court; it’s mildly-meta with vaguely-sweeping-up stagehands in flat caps commenting on the action and lead performers chatting to the audience at the interval; and there’s a penchant for gratuitous step-ladders. Along with this the current trend for marionettes naturally needed to be indulged. The “sweaty theatricality” of Angela Carter’s work is never quite in evidence here: sure there’s plenty of theatricality but the pristine pastel-coloured chorus costumes betray the middle-class take on the sweaty working-class grit that characterises the south of the river location of the show – the “bastard side of the Thames” – the place where I grew up.

Now pantomime tends to divide opinion and there will be those who will adore, glorify and revel in the smutty triviality of Emma Rice’s Angela Carter-inspired Panto Extravaganza and there will be those who will find it
exceedingly irritating and tedious. I’m going to unashamedly sit on the fence on that one: panto aficionados – go see; panto haters – beware the highfalutin Old Vic hype about this being “a celebration of show business, family,
forgiveness and hope”: it may be: but in essence, it’s just a panto.

All those expensive high-class actors ensure, of course, that this is immaculately performed, technically perfect and (mostly) musically sound. Katy Owen as Grandma Chance in her wobbly bodysuit and with her strident coarse-grade sandpaper tones steals the show and she has some outstanding support in Etta Murfitt (Nora Chance) and Gareth Snook (Dora Chance), the 75-year-old twins who narrate the show in traditional, peak-panto, unabashedly OTT, cross-dressing, it’s-behind-you fashion. Not sure if Snook deliberately sings out of tune or not: that’s the beauty of panto, of course: anything goes. The twins’ younger show-girl incarnations are beautifully played by Omari Douglas and Melissa James and their dance

numbers are delightful. The selection of Peregrines and Melchiors, the villains of the piece, those panto-style lovable-rogue-type villains, are played, variously, by Sam Archer, Ankur Bahl, Mike Shepherd and Paul Hunter whilst Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones give some cartoon-Alice comic turns as the various young girls in the piece.

It’s Rice’s obsession with sex in the show that is, for me, the major weakness. We start with some mildly amusing naughty post-card encounters at the beginning but the ground-hog-day-style constant repetition of the same joke
in a running gag meme is maybe what we expect from traditional panto but it becomes prosaic in the extreme. Further, in my view, historic child sex abuse is not something that should be trivialised on stage and should not be given the panto treatment in any circumstances. Having exposed the rape of a child, one throwaway remark by the female-impersonating 75-year-old Dora about how being abused as a child ruined her life, doesn’t, in the present climate, do any favours to the #MeToo movement. One is tempted to suggest that dark old Angela herself would see the irony in the spirit of the previous Artistic Director still haunting the Old Vic boards. I assume that The Royal Bank of Canada (Principle Partner) must be happy to be associated with that.

3 Star Review

Review by Peter Yates

‘Let’s have all the skeletons out of the closet, today, of all days!’
It’s 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday.
In Brixton, Nora and Dora Chance – twin chorus girls born and bred south of the river – are celebrating their 70th birthday. 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. If, in fact, he’s still alive. And if, in truth, Melchior is their real father after all…

A big, bawdy tangle of theatrical joy and heartbreak, Wise Children is a celebration of show business, family, forgiveness and hope. Expect show girls and Shakespeare, sex and scandal, music, mischief and mistaken identity – and butterflies by the thousand.

The cast includes Sam Archer, Ankur Bahl, Stu Barker, Omari Douglas, Mirabelle Gremaud, Alex Heane, Paul Hunter, Melissa James, Bettrys Jones, Patrycja Kujawska, Etta Murfitt, Katy Owen, Ian Ross, Gareth Snook and Mike Shepherd.

Suitable for ages 12+.
Writer Angela Carter
Adapted & Directed by Emma Rice
Designer Vicki Mortimer
Musical Director & Composer Ian Ross
Sound and Video Simon Baker
Lighting Malcolm Rippeth
Choreographer Etta Murfitt
Animation Beth Carter and Stuart Mitchell
Puppetry Design Lyndie Wright
Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of Rc-Annie Ltd.

Mon 8th Oct – Sat 10th Nov 2018
Old Vic


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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