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Review: Wise Children (The Old Vic)

Emma Rice's new company, also called Wise Children, opens its first production, an adaptation of Angela Carter's novel Wise Children

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Melissa James as Showgirl Nora in Wise Children
© Steve Tanner

All eyes are on Wise Children (based on Angela Carter's 1991 novel of the same name) as it opens at the Old Vic ahead of a UK tour. After director and adaptor Emma Rice's slightly awkward exit from Shakespeare's Globe and the controversy surrounding the funding of her new company (also titled Wise Children), the chance to finally see her back in action is a tantalising one for the theatre community.

The show in question seems like a perfect choice for an opening production. Wise Children (as well as a lot of Carter's novels) has a strong theme of transformation– spinsters become mothers, uncles become fathers, pompous actors become decrepit fools. Old guises are cast off and new ones are put on in their place. It doesn't feel like there could be a more fitting way to kick off Rice's post-Globe endeavours.

Understandably, she tinkers around a fair chunk with Carter's novel, truncating a lot of the plot, trimming back some of the periphery characters and making it more cohesive in a two-hour 40-minute runtime. Following a set of Brixton-dwelling twins, Nora and Dora Chance, as they reach their 75th birthday in 1989, the story hops, skips and jumps through the 19th and 20th centuries, charting the careers and relationships of the Chance twins (played by different sets of actors at different points in their lives) and their predecessors, all bitten by the show business bug.

It takes a little while before things whir into motion – only when the teenage "showgirl" iteration of the twins (played with an endearing vivacity by Melissa James and Omari Douglas) light up the auditorium with sequins-fuelled dance sequences and Shakespeare revues does the real magic of the show reveal itself on Vicki Mortimer's set, strewn with paraphernalia. The choreography by Etta Murfitt (who also stars as an older Nora) is a consistently dazzling joy to watch, while Ian Ross' songs are a lovely, jazzy blend of melancholy and elation.

The cast of Wise Children
© Steve Tanner

There are stellar turns from Paul Hunter as the Chance twins' natural father Melchior (Hunter also stealing some scenes as the innuendo-spouting comic Gorgeous George), while Katy Owen is simultaneously endearing and boisterously side-splitting as the twins' elected guardian Grandma Chance. All the regular Rice tropes appear – a quirkily dressed ensemble, a cloying interrogation of the idea of love, spontaneous musical numbers and a set of underdogs worth rooting for.

But it's hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing feels like a bit of a theatrical in-joke. Extended skits about RADA training techniques and the inaccessibility of Chichester may easily soar over a lot of audiences member heads, and it'll be interesting to see how the London-centric narrative plays while the show's on tour. The thespy content resonates on the page, but when presented live (one scene is even set in the Old Vic for some extra meta-theatrical fun) the show can be confounding rather than enthralling. Huge tragedies and swelling glee course through Carter's novel, but it all feels a bit too whimsical to ever really land in Rice's script.

There's a mightily infectious sense of euphoria and celebration, particularly of female solidarity (the show ends with a rousing rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"), at the heart of both Wise Children and its name-bearing company. This is undeniably a troupe ready to enchant audiences across the country, and there'll be many a punter ready and waiting for its next project (this critic included). But compared to the romantic joys of Rice's other shows like Romantics Anonymous or the calamitous grace of something like Tristan and Yseult, under the near-constant tungsten glow of lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth's fairy lights, Wise Children has a habit of feeling, sadly, a bit beige.