reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 November
Emma Rice’s new company, named for this launch production, has something of the quirkiness which one associates with her previous nest at Kneehigh. It’s a bold, multi-disciplined stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s last novel, and has a suitably exploited show-business background.
The kernel of the story centres on twin sisters, Dora and Nora. They are possibly the fruit of a one-night stand by actor-manager Melchior Hazard (himself a scion of a sequence of such theatrical demigods) and a music-hall artiste. From the beginning we are made aware of the geographical and genre hierarchy of early 20th century entertainment.
Rice’s production uses Lyndie Wright’s puppets to represent these infant daughters, and later their putative cousins who may have been fathered by Melchior’s brother Peregrine. Adult Dora and Nora act as a species of chorus as the story unravels, played engagingly by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt.
As sub-teenagers, brought up by their grandmother Chance (Katy Owen), they are played by Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud and later – in their stunning showgirl manifestation by Melissa James and Omari Douglas. Murfitt’s choreography fits the mood and period before us in perfect harmony with musical director Ian Ross’ pot-pourri score.
The younger Melchior is played by Ankur Bahl, who ages into Paul Hunter. Young Peregrine is Sam Archer, maturing (?) into Mike Shepherd. Patrycja Kujawska is Lady Atalanta, Melchior’s well-heeled, well-connected bride of his later years. The on-stage band is supplemented by the actors’ own instrumental as well as vocal contributions.
Yes, if you haven’t read the book, it does at first seem very complicated – a succession of music-hall sketches. Then the sheer theatricality of the presentation, like a succession of finely-executed transformation scenes draws us into its own slightly off-kilter world. Vicki Mortimer’s set and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting aid the journey enormously.
Theatre – whether minimal or elaborate, bare boards and scarce a fistful of actors or backed by a lavish budget and a cast of thousands – is designed to draw us into another world. That can be realistically represented or symbolically suggested. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is its effect.
Wise Children (the company) has given itself something to live up to. That should be fun to watch.
Four and a half star rating.
Wise Children runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.