REVIEW: WISE CHILDREN (Richmond Theatre) ★★★★

Emma Rice is taking to the stage for the first time, as ‘Nora’ in her own stunning production of Wise Children. The show is coming to the end of its nationwide tour, following a successful run at the Old Vic in London.

Joined-at-the-hip twins Nora and Dora are preparing to celebrate their 75th birthday, after an unexpected party invitation from their father (who’s been AWOL for several decades). They reminisce as they get ready, recounting the twists and turns of fate which have characterised their unorthodox lives in showbusiness.

Their tale, adapted from Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, is a dramatic one of love, loss and betrayal. One of the show’s many strengths is its ability to segue from unbridled joy to despair at breakneck speed (sometimes quite literally). The mood is forever buoyed by a wicked sense of humour and camaraderie: “Champagne for us,” they cry, “real pain to the other bastards”.

A technicolour whirl of bohemian glamour and circus tricks, Vicki Mortimer’s design and Ian Ross’s enchanting score have created a distinctly escapist aesthetic which keeps the real world firmly at bay. This is a place of whimsy and make-believe, with old-school vaudeville magic beating at its heart. A love story to ‘the industry’ and to the reliable tonic of music and dancing to patch up any wound.

The use of visual metaphor is unerringly effective in propelling the narrative; cakes appear at birthday parties, laden with a grand extra tier each time, and increasingly vivid butterflies dance at every turn. Rice’s storytelling is also highly physical, the actors using casual acrobatics to traverse the stage and performing the many scenes of intimacy with balletic abstraction. Another smart decision is to use puppetry to work around the play’s more disturbing themes, handling the story’s dark underbelly with a deft touch.

The entire cast is fantastic, with too many outstanding performances to name them all here. Special mention must go to Katy Owen, who shines as Nora and Dora’s beloved and irreverent Grandma Chance, David Snook as older Dora and of course Emma Rice opposite him as the ever naughty-but-nice Nora.

The show’s climax has a tangible sense of contemporaneousness. After confronting the men who have let them down all their lives, three generations of Nora and Dora and the women who love them reach out across time to take care of each other. This is a story with a sting in its tale, but our heroines never lose sight of the love and strength in their lives.

Wise Children is a triumph of storytelling and marks the exciting beginning of Rice’s new chapter, with her theatre company of the same name. Rice’s many fans will doubtless be hoping that this feast of a show is a teaser for what will follow.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor

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