Wise Children ventures back to 1930s South London, following the story of soon-to-be twin starlets Nora and Dora Chance – an adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel, brought to wondrous life by Emma Rice.
However, this is no ordinary tale of the rise and fall of stars, it in fact focuses on much deeper aspects of life.
We’re first introduced to Nora (Etta Murfitt) and Dora (Gareth Snook) Chance as has-been showgirls residing in a caravan during the 1980s – perfectly capturing the kitsch essence of South London at that time. They’ve been invited to their father’s birthday party – a father, we soon realise, who discarded them at birth. Although time has aged them, Murfitt and Snook are brilliantly playful and sassy, foreshadowing what to expect from Wise Children from the get-go – carnie culture meets the bohemian revolution! – as they chronical times that have passed, and dreams yet still to come.
Puppetry and a ground-breaking cast allow the audience to jump back through time in a series of flashbacks of the Chance’s theatrical legacy. The pivotal eras of their journey into adulthood centre around the twin’s navigation through identity and belonging. Each actor in every stage captures the ‘stars in their eyes’ outlook of big dreams, hope and growth. It’s what we all feel the first time we find our true calling in life, and the story of Nora and Dora really brings that home.
The razzle dazzle of Wise Children really kicks in with the arrival of Melissa James (Showgirl Nora) and Omari Douglas (Showgirl Nora) – they are a sublime credit to the show’s themes of gender and racial fluidity. Despite the glitz and glamour, it is with James and Douglas that the tragedies and pleasures in life are infused together as a right of passage which eventually always bring us back to Murfitt and Snook. At not one point do you question the character changes, it is in fact used to their advantage – particularly as our cross-dressed Gareth Snook gags, “It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.”
Quick wit, sassy repartee and double entendres are at the forefront of this astutely written production. With regards to the latter favourable mention goes to Nora and Dora’s grandmother, played by Katy Owen – she’s fierce, street-wise and a joy to watch with her Catherine Tate qualities. Put simply, she left me in hysterics, but I also learnt a thing or two.
I’ve been to many plays where the whole production is leading up to one dramatic and tragic moment, and that’s what you remember – forgetting that the rest of the production was average. This is not the case in Wise Children. Emma Rice’s production is the beacon of five-star showmanship, confronting difficult topics which are played out in a ‘such is life’ realism – at times I laughed, at times my heart sank, but I feel all the better for it.
Angela Carter’s 1991 novel was clearly ahead of its time, and the Wise Children company have catapulted it further into the modern day, making it resonate with our current social climate. The depiction of gender, sex, race and class has been fluidly normalised in the best possible way – making the concept of the ‘cereal box’ family obsolete and, frankly, old fashioned. For the first time in a while I felt positive about the future given the production’s progressive stance.
As an odd delight, for me, there was no star of the show – which is a credit to the production. Wise Children is bursting with show-stopping talent and it was a sheer delight to watch. This is why you go to theatre! I’d watch it again!
Wise Children will run at Bristol Old Vic until February 16.
For further information and to purchase tickets visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk