Adapted from Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, Wise Children tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, illegitimate twins who grow up to be showgirls in a chaotic and theatrical family. Littered with Shakespearean references, this is a tale of matriarchal strength amongst patriarchal inadequacy and of sisterly love in a century and city of change.
The eccentricities of the characters and the vintage glitz and glamour are wonderfully reflected in the intricately zany production design. Typical of director Emma Rice’s quirky style, no production element is overlooked: scene changes are beautifully idiosyncratic and musical interludes are both choreographed and executed with meticulous precision.
Rice must also be applauded for her refreshing approach as she employs both colour-blind and gender-blind casting. The performances are sizzling with energy throughout; Gareth Snook is particularly strong as elderly Dora.
Wise Children, however, is inherently flawed. Whilst there is nothing wrong with slapstick fun, exaggerated characters and pantomimic audience interaction, when applied to the chosen text, Rice’s distinctive style seems unsuitable. The theatricality of the characters and the quirkiness of the whirlwind storyline do indeed lend themselves well to the elements of pastiche employed. Other more serious issues explored, such as child rape, miscarriage and bereavement, seem at best glossed over, at worst trivialised.
A complex web of characters and stories is woven throughout and yet this production feels entirely superficial, relying heavily on bawdy jokes and dazzling dance routines, rather than seeking any real depth or truth. Many characters are multi-roled by several actors and yet there is a pitiful consistency to characterisation. Consequently, moments of pathos seem lacklustre, relationships are empty and the plot is seemingly insincere and contrived.
Rice’s adaptation is truly remarkable in how divisive it is: whilst some spectators cringe, other chuckle. A great many seats were empty after the interval and yet other audience members were enraptured enough to give a standing ovation. In my opinion, this is the strength that theatre should have; it is a true credit to the entire production’s conviction that it can get such varying reactions.
Personal judgments aside, if you can get past an overall lack of depth, this is an enthusiastic and entertaining show. Though there is much to be criticised in Wise Children, Rice must be praised for bringing an original take to a classic and a zesty and zany production to London’s theatre scene.