Review: Wise Children

Available on BBC I Player


Vaudeville tales

Emma Rice’s vivid stage adaptation of the final Angela Carter novel from 1991 pulls up the skirts of vaudeville and slaps slapstick until its cheeks are red.

Eta Murfitt, famous for her incredible work with Matthew Bourne, and a game Gareth Snook play, respectively, Nora and Dora Chance, twins born to a theatrical scoundrel, Melchier Hazard, who fled after their mother got pregnant without so much as a backwards glance.

Now in their seventies, the pair of performers, locked in a kind of co-dependent sisterhood like a sassier Tweedledum and Tweedledee, reflect on their colourful, bawdy theatrical life.

Director Rice, who was so inspired by Carter in her twenties that she has named her Bristol- based theatre company after this, excels by keeping the action pacy and crisp, creating worlds within worlds, and not skimping on the more unsavoury alleyways of Carter’s writing. There’s child abuse, errant lovers, a miscarriage and violence here, all portrayed with unflinching detail.

But it’s never prurient for its own sake. These sisters’ stories resemble the last days of grotty old London town, “the bastard side of the Thames”, as they describe it, nodding to the pre-gentrification days when buildings had character, and a character could be found behind behind each building.

The songs are gloriously performed, ranging from folk to jazz to a soupcon of Jerome Kern, and Vicki Mortimer’s seedily glamorous design is like an Alphonse Mucha wet dream.

It’s best savoured when the stars come out: a tragi-comic romp through showbiz with the seams showing. It is sad, hilarious and as poignant as an empty theatre. Seems apposite for where we’re at right now, eh, me ducks?

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