CW: On-stage suggestions of sexual abuse, miscarriage, and incest.
Reworking Angela Carter’s 1991 novel Wise Children, Emma Rice’s theatrical imagining of the text is an explosive ode to the carnivalesque and a sensuous, bohemian feast of a pantomime. It’s a haunted fairytale which explores the shades between good and evil with darker moments offset by nostalgic musical numbers.
The scene is a Brixton car-park in 1989 and our protagonists are twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, accompanied by a gaggle of pastel-coloured mime artists and leggy thespians. A live band play a bewitching score in an alcove behind the centre-stage caravan and beneath the bulb-lit lettering of ‘Wise Children’, keeping guard of the pair. We meet the sisters on the day of their 75th birthday when they are unexpectedly delivered with an invitation to a birthday party from their estranged father, the actor Melchior Hazard. ‘There may be trouble ahead!’ the company croons, and the narrative sketches their complex and adulterous lineage, through which we meet a diverse host of eccentric and extraordinary members.
The importance of Shakespeare to the text is an intriguing thread which certainly feels appropriate given the timings of Rice’s departure from the Globe theatre. There’s a disdain for convention and a playful approach to gender and role-swapping with Ankur Bahl playing both the young Melchior and, later, the bratty female RADA student with whom Melchior has an affair. Katy Owen’s portrayal of the bawdy Grandma Chance is particularly worthy of praise and nothing short of comic brilliance. She has a stubborn disposition and as the parental guardian of the young girls, she spends her days drinking stout and delivering life lessons to the girls, most of which are conducted whilst Owens dons a plump (nude) fat suit with tastefully bejewelled areola and pubic region.
The play’s set and costume design, overseen by Vicki Mortimer, is a visual pleasure, wonderfully camp and charmingly mismatched; wigs poorly fixed with sagging lace-fronts; ungodly high-waisted trousers and lashings of gender-bending and breaking. The musical number at the beginning of the second act confirms this as they sing, “Girls will be boys when they want their own way . . . there’s a sudden realization at the end of the play, that we’re all a bit distracted by the choice of passageway!”. This is Rice at her absolute finest.