Angela Carter’s Wise Children brought to vibrant life as a wild and gender-fluid stage show

Emma Rice’s production at the Old Vic captures the verve and colour of this earthy and unsentimental story of love and struggle in south London

Showgirl Nora (Melissa James) in Wise Children at The Old Vic. Photo by Steve Tanner
4.0 out of 5 star rating

Angela Carter’s rollicking story of Dora and Nora Chance, the south London dancers from the “wrong side of the tracks”, the identical twin daughters of famed Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, is a love letter to life – and live performance. As such it’s little wonder that her brilliant final novel hasn’t been adapted for the stage more often.

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Adaptor and director Emma Rice clearly thinks so. She loves this story and, following her unfortunate experience at Shakespeare’s Globe (when she was unceremoniously removed from her post as artistic director last year), is rebooting her career with a story she adores. She has even named her new theatre company Wise Children and delivers a bright, vibrant, musical and gender fluid retelling of this story.

It’s mainly narrated in old age by Dora (Gareth Snook on fab form) on the day of their father Melchior’s 100th birthday. As they unpack boxes of memories (and a few spangly outfits) the twins look back on a London of hardship and razzle dazzle, a caravan on a rotating stage speaking of their life on the road and never knowing exactly where they stand. Melchior has never formally recognised them as his wise children and that hurts. It’s uplifting, but never sentimental.

Holding everything together in just over two-and-a half hours means narrative precision is at a premium; the Chance babies start as puppets and three cast changes are required encompassing their incarnations as young children, athletic teenagers and then older ladies who act as choric commentators on the action. Characters are replaced by older versions, their hair greying and the colour gradually draining from their clothes. The genders, races and accents are never consistent, but this feels entirely faithful to a story infused as it is with the spirit of Shakespearean themes of lost love, dubious parenting and of course cross dressing.

Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), Nora (Etta Murfitt) and Dora (Gareth Snook) in Wise Children at The Old Vic. Photo by Steve Tanner

The music is also a delightful, cheery mess fusing music hall numbers with some upbeat music from its 1980s setting. A cast dance to Electric Avenue, Eddy Grant’s wonderful 1982 paean to Brixton (where the Chance sisters live), fills the stage at one point as if from nowhere but it’s no less delightful for that and went down a storm.

It’s also very earthy story, a hard tale of miscarriages, infidelities and even sexual abuse; it feels like life in the raw, with all the attendant snags.

Consequently, it is true that the production slightly loses momentum and concision in the second half when Carter’s story becomes wilder, and slightly frayed, as the bombs rain down and we lose their beloved Grandma Chance, a brilliantly vibrant performance from Katy Owen as the gravel-voiced surrogate mother fond of walking round the house in the nude.

That loss is keenly felt because in many senses this Grandma who adopted the girls as abandoned babies simply because she loved them embodies the spirit of the story, almost as much as the Chance girls themselves. Because ultimately it’s a make-do-and-mend tale where what matters is not who you are related to but who you love and how you love. And as such it’s impossible not to be enchanted.

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Wise Children is at the Old Vic London until November 10. Box Office: 0844 871 7628