Angela Carter, high priestess of writing excellence, has met her ideal dancing partner in director Emma Rice. Carter’s complex and often ugly narratives, exploring the limits of the human experience in a litany of taboos, seem at first glance almost impossible to adapt for the stage, not least because her voice is the blood of her books, the soul of the writing. Wise Children in particular is absurdly complicated, with more sets of twins than an 80s clothing catalogue and a fairly loose regard for regulated family behaviours. The narrative spans more or less the entirety of the 20th century, following through the generations of the gloriously named Chances and Hazards as they take to the stage and take off their clothes with equal fervour and relish. Rice’s adaptation is an incandescent success, with Carter’s voice ringing through at every turn. The production is a tightly packed box of contraband fireworks, with a cast of characters bursting at the seams in an explosion of the lewd, the hilarious and the completely and utterly human. Special mention must be made of the gloriously varied choreography of sex scenes: Carter would have been thrilled with all the bouncing, flouncing and leg waving going on in these staged celebrations of life and love.
This brings us neatly to the greatest glory of this production: the cast. Three sets of female twins, our narrators Nora and Dora, are brought to life by three wildly different pairings. Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones are the young Nora and Dora, skipping and running (and in the case of Gremaud twisting and cartwheeling) about in white smocks with dishevelled mops of hair, discovering their love of the theatre whilst wrestling with their abandonment by their foppish and shallow father Melchior Hazard, played with wonderful narcissism in his young iteration by Ankur Bahl. The twins grow up before our very eyes, with an excellent moment of stage magic revealing the raggedly scraggles of Jones and Gremaud to have been transformed into leggy showgirls with raven black flapper haircuts. Melissa James and Omari Douglas are the Dora and Nora of adolescence and young adulthood: they are almost too fabulous for words, with legs for days and voices that filled the Old Vic with rambunctious song. A particular highlight, and motto for life, is “girls will be boys when they want their own way”, a song which aptly reminds us of the vitality and humour of Shakespeare, something both Carter and Rice seem to know on a deep, instinctive level. Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook are the Nora and Dora of the present day, with Snook carrying the narrative weight as Dora with style and exceptional humour. Other key mentionables are Sam Archer as Young Peregrine, an exceptionally talented dancer and actor with razor sharp comic timing and Katy Owen as Grandma Chance in a turn as dazzling as the diamanté bejewelled nipples and muff adorning her fat-suit. Mike Shepherd multi-roles as the complex and flawed patriarch of the Hazard/Chance clan and the older Peregrine, whilst Patrycja Kujawska has some of the more touching moments of the production as the Blue Eyed Boy. Paul Hunter is the old Melchior, has a fantastic variety turn as Gorgeous George and delivers an invitation in spectacular, windswept style.
Vicky Mortimer’s set and costume designs are sublime, with different spaces and times conjured effortlessly by slick and minimal changes of a set that is vibrant with light and colour. Ian Ross brings delight and emotional depth with his compositions, and there is some beautiful animation from Beth Carter and Stuart Mitchell that flies the audience through London as we reach the final scenes of the production. Stage fighting is always an exceptionally elusive artform, and some slaps didn’t land with the necessary accuracy. Some shocking and classically Carter material was handled sensitively and starkly, yet the final climactic sex scene felt somehow underpowered and hidden away, lacking some of the irreverence and erotic joy of Carter’s writing in an oddly shy staging that clumsily put the couple behind a row of characters. This moment is out of keeping with the rest of the production which, in the words of Melchior Hazard, is performed “most obscenely and courageously”. This is one party you don’t want to miss out on, and a fantastic and welcome return to the wrong side of the Thames for Rice.