The Old Vic, London – until 10 November 2018
The Roar of the Greasepaint meets the smell of sour grapes in Wise Children at the Old Vic.
‘Now listen carefully’ says the wonderful Gareth Snook, hosting the proceedings as 75-year-old chorus girl Dora Chance ‘or it’s going to be a long evening’. Even if you did listen to his synopsis of Dora and twin Nora’s picaresque romp through backstage, back alleys and back passages across a lifetime of theatrical illegitimacy, incest and abandonment, it’s still a long evening.
Emma Rice’s newly independent theatre company is cocking a snook – literally – at her former employers Shakespeare’s Globe by saying ‘look what I could have done for you if you hadn’t pissed me off’.
With Vicki Mortimer’s zany set of fairground lights, theatrical paraphernalia and a revolving caravan like Priscilla Queen of the Desert on life support, all the trappings of a Rice show are in attendance: although detaching them from a known Shakespeare play makes for a less satisfying outcome than in her work at the Globe, largely because Angela Carter’s 1991 magical realist source novel is so dense and dark.
Maybe I just don’t get ‘magical realism’ or maybe I don’t think it’s entirely expressed with a few waved butterflies, coloured lights and coloured tights, and reversing the age, colour, gender and accent of characters every time they change costume.
Top performances include Snook’s sardonic vintage soubrette with the voice of Peggy Mount while Katy Owen’s overly coarse nudist grandma clearly channels Barbara Windsor. Providing relief from the deliberate cavalcade of music hall tat, Paul Hunter is a splendid comic relief, re-working Max Miller’s scurrilous stand-up comedy, especially clever with the ‘he’s not your dad’ joke about the girls’ controversial parentage.
Melissa James and Omari Douglas as the younger ‘Lucky Chances’ perform a joyous dance routine lifted straight from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger in Chicago, and the stage is crowded with everything from Shakespearean actor-managers to bunraku puppets – it’s as though Rice is trying to evoke Sondheim’s lyric from ‘Comedy Tonight‘ – Panderers, Philanderers, Cupidity, Timidity, Mistakes, Fakes. Rhymes, Mimes, Tumblers, Grumblers, Bumblers, Fumblers. All human theatrical life is here.
Busy. Dizzy. Often dazzling. But an underlying motif that early adversity makes tough surviving women ignores the fact that this isn’t a universal truth.