ANGELA Carter’s final novel, a paeon to the world of theatre, was the perfect vehicle for Emma Rice to launch her new theatre company, hoisting two brightly-painted, fairy-light adorned fingers to the naysayers at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Already a smash hit in London, it starts its UK tour at Bristol Old Vic, itself dripping with history, to an audience well acquainted with Rice’s work, particularly in Kneehigh productions. They are not like anything else, these shows.
Irreverent, inventive, inclusive and often indescribable, they inhabit the stage with larger-than-life characters, extraordinary situations and stories and extravagantly versatile performers. They exude that “smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd” (cleverly subverted by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse in 1964) so often lost in 21st century theatre.
Carter’s story, told in flashback, starts on the 75th birthday of twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance, accidental daughters of ambitious young actor Melchoir. Their mother died in childbirth after her Romeo had scarpered, leaving NoraDora in the earthy care of Grandma Chance, comforted and compromised by daddy’s eccentric twin brother Peregrine. Their illegitimacy and abandonment was the seed for casual promiscuity.
Drawn to the bright lights from the moment they clapped eyes on end-of-the-pier comedian Gorgeous George, by the time they were in their late teens the twins were famous showgirls, working with the more famous Melchior, whose titled wife now had twins of her own.
There are serious threads running through this hilarious, libidinous romp, and if it’s smoke and mirrors it’s also joy and love and dancing.
The new company has enlisted two dancers, Ankur Bahl and Sam Archer, as the younger Melchior and Peregrine, Kneehigh regulars Etta Murfitt, Patrycja Kujawska and Katy Owen as current Nora, Lady Atalanta and Grandma, with the statuesque Omari Douglas and Melissa James as the showgirls leading the amazing cast. Gareth Snook is the conspiratorial current Dora.
Wise Children is on at Bristol until 16th February, and tickets are few and far between. Emma Rice’s first production for her company, named after the book and the show, is an appetising prospect. Look out for the next adventure.