Review | Emma Rice’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic, 9 April – 30 June 2020

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Set of Wise Children, photograph by Steve Tanner

Katrina Bennett


Carnival in your room


Emma Rice’s stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s final novel, is raunchy, colourful and garish. We have come to expect nothing less from the acclaimed director, whose bold approach proved too much for theatrical conservatives during her spell as Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe. In this first production from her new theatre company – also named ‘Wise Children’ – Rice’s talent explodes in an all-singing, all-dancing drama, with high kicks, sex and scandal galore.

An intergenerational story, the play begins on the 75th birthday of Brixton-based former showgirl twins, Nora and Dora (Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt), when they receive a party invitation from their absent father, Melchior Hazard (Paul Hunter). The pair narrate their life story, from their grandparents’ first meeting to their own births, through to the present day: Melchior, as a young man (played by Ankur Bahl), abandons their pregnant mother; she dies in childbirth; they are raised instead by the loud, brash Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), with irregular visits from their father’s twin. It’s a lifetime peppered with tragedy – the deaths of loved ones and their father’s refusal to acknowledge them as his own – but the play maintains a light comedic touch.

Watching Wise Children at home feels a little like letting a carnival into your room. Bursts of white light against tones of pink and blue illuminate a flurry of dancers in colourful costumes, dripping with sequins and fringes. No sooner is one setting established do we move swiftly on, shifting rapidly from giggling puppet versions of Dora and Nora as toddlers, to the showgirl twins kicking and dancing across the stage. The extravagant visuals match the funny, unabashedly saucy script, indulging in stray legs thrust from the caravan’s shaking windows, spanking with drumsticks and shameless, wandering hands.

The play is a romping delight. In one scene, a confused ‘stagehand’ wanders about in bafflement at the action unfolding around him. The pretentious Melchior attempts to teach his new-borns how to say ‘RADA’ and continually quotes Shakespeare, chapter and verse, while Grandma drunkenly heckles those she dislikes. Given her previous post at the Globe, Rice’s casual mockery of the Bard’s traditionalists feels a little pointed to say the least.

Dora and Nora’s glitzy showbiz world is sartorially pitted against their father’s traditional thespian one, as the twins’ sparkled costumes and short chic bobs contrast Melchior’s ruffled shirts, velvet trousers, and his beloved King Lear crown. Set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer’s attention to detail is extraordinary. An open-faced caravan with an eclectic pink interior provides a base for much of the action as Dora and Nora’s home, while the rest of the stage is littered with touches of the theatrical setting: mirrors lit with bulbs, step ladders and miscellaneous props, and ‘Wise Children’ in lights overhead.

Rice’s artistic vision would be impossible without the extraordinary ensemble cast. Their range is impressive, executing Etta Murfitt’s choreography expertly as they switch from sizzling cabaret numbers to delicate, balletic moves. Present-day Dora and Nora – brilliantly played by Snook and Murfitt, with a palpable sense of nostalgia for their youth – produce touching moments as they provide emotional support for their younger selves. In a quiet moment of reflection, all three versions of Dora and Nora cluster together in grief, looking silently out at the audience, their cheeks wet with tears – it is profoundly moving, starkly contrasting the rest of the production’s general fanfare.

The young adult versions of Dora (Melissa James) and Nora (Omari Douglas) also deserve note, bringing a charming energy to their dance numbers, vividly expressing the darker moments of their adulthood. Elsewhere, Wise Children leans too heavily on caricature. Rice’s larger-than-life characters and spectacles are a constant source of entertainment, but occasionally it goes overboard. Grandma Chance’s crude humour and squawking laugh verge on irritating and sometimes spoil the emotional impact of more sombre scenes.

The production’s music, composed by Ian Ross, brings a feeling of continuity to the years that the action crosses, with recurring motifs and songs. The cast frequently blend with the on-stage band, appearing with a sax, violin or harp, and also create powerful and moving vocal accompaniment. A closing rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s camp classic ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ feels inevitable. Led by Mirabelle Gremaud (Young Nora), with the rest of the cast in full voice, the showstopper is testament to these multitalented actors.

Wise Children tells a story coloured with sex and love that asks deeper questions about the nature of family, breaking apart traditional roles as Dora and Nora form their own unique bonds regardless of blood. Rice, like Carter, is unafraid to stray from the conventional. Her honest depiction of the complexities of family relationships, and the trauma, heartbreak, and grief they can involve, creates a unique production for the modern era, one which leaves the nuclear family far behind us.

Words by Katrina Bennett.

Wise Children is available to watch online here until the end of June.


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