The Old Vic, London – 10 November 2018
Twins, three sets of them, in a dynasty of performers from the 1880s onward: a theatrical boarding-house with a heart-of-gold harridan landlady, lies and confusions about paternity (“it’s a wise child that knows its own father”), and a touch of incest and child abuse. Dauntless old age and memory, song and dance acts, betrayals.
Angela Carter’s last novel – a strange, fantastical, vigorous but delicate feminist imagining of a century of high and low performers – beguiled Emma Rice for a long time. So her new residency with The Old Vic opens with her adaptation of the book and shares its name with the new company she has founded after the wounding debacle downriver at the Globe. A nice name for a Rice ensemble: makers of theatre do indeed need to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves…
Old Carter fans (and fresh ones fizzed up this year by Radio 4 versions) will recognise the writer’s world, though not quite her tone. Rice is broader, less delicate in imagination, more deliberately rorty. So we meet, on their 75th birthday, our narrators Dora and Nora: erstwhile chorines, startled to be summoned to the 100th birthday of Melchior, the legendary actor-manager and Edwardian ham.
He is their father, but disowned them and left them to think they belonged to his lepidopterist businessman brother Peregrine. Who has actually fathered Melchior’s supposed younger twins by his now-discarded paralysed wife, now cared for by Dora and Nora who call her “Wheelchair”. Got it so far? Keep up at the back!
Actually, it isn’t hard, because for all the intricacies the narration – mainly by old Dora, who is played by Gareth Snook and ends up looking disconcertingly like the Rev Richard Coles if he had been wearing a butterfly kimono on Strictly – is fairly ploddingly linear.
It is enlivened by flashbacks of the younger twin sisters, at one point intriguingly played by Melissa James and a genderswitched Omari Douglas , only their clothes being identical. Though that doesn’t get noticed by the blue-eyed lover who Nora gives to Dora for a her first night’s sex. Song and dance numbers of various periods are threaded through, but though amusing they never exactly move us on. It’s a circussy, seedily bright-lights world of louche showbiz nostalgia in a world that never quite was: panto, puppetry, comedy sex, very old pier-end jokes , keep on coming.
There are actually interesting themes in the book: about the gap between the showgirls’ illegitimacy in both senses, their world of jugglers and speciality acts and red-nose comics despised by those in Melchior’s selfishly triumphant “legit” theatre (a lot of very very hammy, parodic, almost despised Shakespeare lines are thrown in) . There’s the sense of the oldest taking most responsibility for the youngest, of paternal neglect , exploitation of young women and the paltriness of the cardboard crown of Shakespearian grandees. But none of those things ever seem as if they actually mattered in life. By the end of the first half I appreciated the laughs and energy and audience whoops – Katy Owen’s Grandma is also great fun – yet felt a curious disconnection, feeling a fragment of credible emotion or sense of jeopardy.
The second half is better, with one moment at least that jolts you a little. But while Emma Rice in the Kneehigh years showed she can unpeel emotion – remember Brief Encounter, Tristan, Rebecca – somehow it doesn’t take. Overwhelmed by stage whimsy, Carter’s strange thread of magical seriousness doesn’t show through. I wanted to like it more.
box office 0844 871 7628 to 10 Nov