“What a joy it is to dance and sing!” The words run throughout Angela Carter’s last novel “Wise Children,” a headlong tumble through the world of London theater, and their spirit is embodied by Emma Rice’s new stage adaptation. Raucous and imaginative, it’s a big, fat love letter to theater itself, in all its many forms — and, indeed, to life.
You could forgive the director for forswearing the stage. Known to Broadway audiences for her “Brief Encounter,” which sent Noel Coward’s stiff-lipped railway romance soaring into the skies, she’s had a bumpy few years back at home. A short-lived stint heading up Shakespeare’s Globe was feted but ill-fated: Rice’s crowd-pleasing program put purists’ backs up and she was, very publicly and very contentiously, given notice after only six months. “Wise Children” brings her back on her own terms with a new touring company of the same name.
It’s a heaven-made match. Carter’s novel hurtles across the 20th century stage behind two septuagenarian twin sisters, showgirls Nora and Dora Chance. It flutters from their debut as a young music hall duo to their West End break in a wartime revue, but the real story is their tangled family tree.
Abandoned by their vainglorious actor-manager dad, Olivier-proxy Melchior Hazard (clad head-to-toe in violet velour), they’re raised in run-down Brixton digs, under the wing of their wayfaring uncle, Melchior’s rivalrous twin Peregrine.
With its two worlds, twin sets and absentee dads, it’s a whopping cod-Shakespearean romp, but Rice turns it into a giant variety show. As the Chances shimmy from stage to stage, high art to low, “Wise Children” skips through every conceivable theatrical style. Beret-wearing ballet dancers watch the girls’ first flapper dance. Old songbook standards segue into pop, violin solos burst into burlesque, and double acts, drag acts and two-bit turns abound. It runs the whole gamut – Shakespeare to end-of-the-pier, and Paul Hunter’s pelvic-thrusting Gorgeous George is a ba-doom-tish delight.
Rice’s patchwork style elevates her storytelling, and she’s pruned Carter’s willfully convoluted plot back without sacrificing its freewheeling, bacchanalian spirit. There’s more sex here than you can shake your stick at, and a bed-trick to boot. Cutting its detour to a faux forest in Hollywood, she does lose some of its Shakespearean structure — the mix-ups and mischief that take place in the woods — but small bother. Where the page flattens performance, reducing it to words, words, words, Rice lets it burst into full-bodied life – and what’s theater, at base, if not precisely that?
For all her signature whimsical charm (bobble-hats, check; butterflies, check), that’s what makes “Wise Children” Rice’s most sophisticated show yet. She harnesses theatre’s imaginative possibilities to make a manifesto for life.
At the height of his fame, Melchior gambles his fortune away, including the crown his father handed down. His wife cuts him a cardboard replacement, stressing no-one will see the swap. Everything here lives in that spirit. Fires are conjured with a few bits of cloth, caravans stand if for grand stately homes, and everyone plays everybody: actors of all races, ages and genders play the Chance sisters and the Hazard dads. The message is as clear as the muddle: theatrical riches are more than a substitute for worldly wealth. Theater makes anything possible for anybody.
Rice’s crack cast of clowns take that mantra to their hearts, so that “Wise Children” is teeming with performances to relish. Hunter and Ankur Bahl are all poise and pomp as Melchior old and young, while Rice’s old Kneehigh mucker Mike Shepherd and Sam Archer bound around as his carefree brother. Katy Owens, in a lilac beehive and a saggy-bosomed body-suit, unleashes a lawnmower voice as Grandma Chance, and the Chance sisters themselves are beguilingly played at every age. Mirabelle Giraud and Bettrys Jones are the precocious kids blinded by the bright lights of the stage, Melissa Jones and Omari Douglas are the sultry backstage creatures on the way up, and Etta Murfit and Gareth Snooks, as the knock-kneed retirees, narrate the whole show with the bawdy sensibility of a village hall panto. What a joy to see that at the Old Vic.