Wise Children at the Old Vic: ‘Being on the wrong side of the tracks has never felt so alluring.’

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Wise Children at the Old Vic, the first production from Emma Rice’s new company and based on the novel of the same name by Angela Carter.

‘We live on the wrong side of the tracks.’ In the opulent Old Vic, audiences find themselves literally on the other side of the river Thames watching Emma Rice’s new production, Wise Children, both bemused and impressed by the beauty of its staging. The first show from Rice’s now company Wise Children, this piece based on Angela Carter’s 1991 novel of the same name. Depicting the lives of two orphaned showgirls, the nonpartisan casting of both race and gender prompts a daring and racy show that shines through its staging. Being on the wrong side of the tracks has never felt so alluring.

Wise Children starts as Nora (Etta Murtfitt) and Dora (Gareth Snook) Chance, identical twins, are invited to a birthday party for Melchior (Paul Hunter), their father ,with whom they share a birthday. Now turning seventy, living in a caravan given to them by Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), this self-confessed ‘diaspora of the affluent’ consider it as an imperative that audiences know of their lives before they go to the party, and thus begins a narrative of love, loss, abandonment and betrayal.

Rice’s casting (through Sam Jones CDG) has suspended any expectations of race or gender. Child Dora is a puppet and then played by Bettrys Jones. In adolescence, when Nora becomes a dancing girl, the role is taken over by Melissa James. Now as adult Dora, Snook can often be seen observing her life painfully play out in front of her. A similar pattern of child-showgirl-adult is also seen in the character of Nora: Mirabelle Gremaud, Omari Douglas and Murtfitt plays the roles respectively. All are brilliant, though special praise must go to Douglas, James and Snook. Other praise-worthy performances come from Owen as the unappetising Grandma and Hunter again as George the Comic. Gender-blind casting, as per the success of Marianne Elliott’s Company, is increasingly looking to be the way forward for theatre.Wise Children is no different in showing the varied potential for directors if they embrace the possibilities that are offered by approaching casting from a blind perspective.

Katy Owen, Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook in Wise Children. Photograph: Steve Tanner

Indeed, casting is integral to the fascination of imagination in this play. In a simple, but highly effective swap of actors, the older Hunter replaces Ankur Bahl as Melchior, thereby demonstrating the all-too-familiar tendency for children to cast their parents in a glistening and sentimental light. As children, our parents always seem young and indestructible. The simple change from Bahl to Hunter is a highly effect one, emphasising not only the casting choice but also the personal and romantic tone of the piece as a whole.

Vicki Mortimer’s design, as one might expect from the creative impulse of Follies, has a beautiful but dilapidated quality. Cast through warm orange lights, a central caravan becomes the chic home of the Chance sisters or Melchior’s chandeliered abode, and everything in between. Dressing-room mirrors and tables litter the sides of the theatre, showing the theatre expertise of its characters and the Narcissus-like, self-evaluative focus a mirror can bring. Other moments of beautiful staging punctuate the show, clustering especially towards James and Douglas as they explore the extravagant lives of child stars. Above all sits a large sign, ‘Wise Children’, which lights up at pertinent point in the production, a clear declaration of arrival from both this show and Rice’s new company. 

For all this, however, I could not help but feel rather underwhelmed as the twin’s stories slowly comes to a close. The personal narratives are told so beautifully, but they offer little innovation. The precarity, harshness and cruelty of the showbusiness world are now so well-ingrained in our psyche that what unfolds does not feel overly powerful nor emotional. For all its stylistic and conceptual design, it is a shame the plot lets the production down. Some pacing issues also hinder the show, though the entire cast remain enticing throughout.

Is, then, being on the wrong side of the tracks an attracktive place to be? By virtue of approach, Rice’s ‘creatures of the theatre’ are no less animalistic than delicate performers. With musical numbers of old classics, the tired theatrical nature of Wise Children reminds audiences of what is attractive about the theatre, especially its ability to help us mask the present. It’s just a shame the plot feels like a delayed train on Southern Rail.


Wise Children is at the Old Vic until the 10thNovember, 2018.

Feature photograph: Steve Tanner

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk @AntWalker_Cook

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