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REVIEW: Wise Children

The buzz surrounding Emma Rice’s Angela Carter adaptation has been unreal. But does it live up to the hype? Muddy finds out at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre, where the debut tour ends.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Girls just want to have fun! Emma Rice’s gleeful adaptation of Angela Carter’s 1991 novel is compelling from the start, full of whimsy, wildly inventive and beautifully staged around a retro caravan.

The 119th production of this debut tour, which premiered at the Old Vic in London in October last year, received a warm, rapturous response and a standing ovation from the audience on press night at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre where the run draws to a close on Sat April 6.

Dora Chance (Gareth Snook) and her twin Nora Etta Murfitt

This touching tawdry theatrical about twins, incest and aging is based on the reminiscences of illegitimate twin sisters looking back at their showgirl career as they turn 75 on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday. Dora and Nora Chance – “The Lucky Chances” – provide the narrative with three pairs of actors playing the twins at different stages of their lives. Puppetry is cleverly used to depict the protagonists as babies and children.

The twins’ paternal grandmother holding their father and his twin brother

Rice has “devoured” Angela Carter’s literary output since she was a student in the 1980s, when the writer was at her peak. She co-adapted Nights at the Circus for Kneehigh Theatre in 2006. Even then she knew she wanted to make Wise Children next. The former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe has since set up her own theatre company and it took three years to adapt this huge novel – she made “big cuts” with her colour marker!

In a post-show Q&A, Rice says no-one else portrays women and their sex lives in the same way, other than perhaps Victoria Wood – her female characters are real and wild, “swearing” and “farting”. Katy Owen’s free-spirited Grandma Chance is a perfect example of this. “A convert to naturalism” she sashays around the stage in a naked suit hilariously spouting suggestive double entendres.

 

Showgirl Dora (Melissa James) and Grandma Chance (Katy Owen)

In an almost Shakespearean feminist twist, Carter’s twin sisters take centre stage while the leading men, including their estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a showy Shakespearean actor and his butterfly-obsessed twin Peregrine, become minor players – in-and-out of the sisters’ lives. Raised in a matriarchy by Grandma, after their abandoned 17-year-old mother dies in childbirth, the young twins ask quizzically “What is a father?” Grandma proceeds to give them a biology lesson handing them each a doughnut and a stick of rock out of her wicker basket!

Grandma Chance with young Dora and Nora

We are quickly swept along by this intriguing theatrical family saga spanning three generations. There are wonderful performances all-round. Cross-dressing Gareth Snook is the jaded older Dora and Rice herself plays the role of Nora stepping in for Etta Murfitt, who had a prior commitment for the final two tour dates. Glamorous Omar Douglas and Melissa James, with their matching dark-haired bobs, signature scents and fox fur, are exuberant as the high-kicking showgirls during the height of their career; while acrobatic Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones play the excitable young Dora and Nora in white petticoat-style dresses embroidered with their initials. Rice said she made “the quick decision early on to make the twins not look alike” so when it came to casting she was free to choose actors of any gender, ethnicity and age.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Omari Douglas and Melissa James as showgirls Nora and Dora

(L-R) Dora, half-sister Saskia Hazard and Nora (Melissa James, Bettrys Jones and Omari Douglas)

Wise Children is in Rice’s words “a love letter to theatre”. “What a joy it is to dance and sing” is the running theme repeated by the sisters throughout the play spurred on by happy childhood memories of an amusing end-of-the-pier stand-up in Brighton. The inventive quirkiness of the stage design, atmospheric lighting, stunning choreography, and stunning live music intertwine to magical effect. You can virtually smell the greasepaint as the ensemble potter about backstage in the open wings, lounging at flower-adorned dressing tables and limbering up. Vicki Mortimer’s brilliant rotating retro caravan is visually entrancing with constantly changing interiors under a white neon Wise Children sign.

I thought the fully-clothed, wittily choreographed and gracefully balletic sex scenes, devised by actor and choreographer Etta Murfitt – also an Associate Artistic Director and performer for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures – so clever. It must have taken some practice to get them right! Reinterpretations of songs from the author’s own mixtape and Unicorn poetry collection – which she listened to while writing the book – are cleverly interwoven into the storytelling including Eddie Grant’s upbeat Electric Avenue as the older sisters choose their birthday partywear in Brixton market to an acoustic folksy version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which sounds almost melancholy.

It’s an emotional, uplifting and massively enjoyable journey. I can’t wait to see what the company does with their second show, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers!

Wise Children at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, runs until Saturday, April 6 with 2pm matinee (audio described) and 7.30pm evening performances. Tel the box office on 024 7655 3055, belgrade 

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