Emma Rice launches her new theatre Company with a bold adaptation of Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children at The Old Vic. With her impish, ensemble imaginings, Rice is the perfect match for Carter’s dark yet effervescent world of theatricals on the ‘wrong side of the track’. With a history of successful productions in a similar style from Knee High Theatre (Brief Encounter, Tristan & Yseult Romantics Anonymous), Rice is clearly back in home territory after her tempestuous couple of years as Artistic Director of the Globe.

Wise Children is the story of Nora and Dora, illegitimate twins of the vain and preposterous thesbian, Sir Melchior Hazard. After their mother dies horribly, they are brought up by Grandma (who prefers to be naked) and visited by Uncle Peregrin Hazard who has his own dark secrets. ‘Comedy is Tragedy that happens to other people’ says Dora, giving a taste of Carter’s brilliant prose, which often emerges from the mouths of the sisters, alongside chunks of Shakespearean verse, Irving Berlin songs and fabulous clowning.

Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook play the twins in their old age, wise yet childlike narators reeling us in as we step back in time. In this world, there’s almost no need to mention that a man is playing a woman. Emma Rice is the master of gender blind casting – in fact race, accent, age, gender are all freely switched around, with the twins themselves played by three different actors and a puppet each. What is impressive that all this freedom does not come at the expense of character development or narrative thread. During the first half we are very aware of the overtly theatrical style, with more than a hint of a wink from cast to audience, but the cast weave their magic almost imperceptibly towards a profoundly moving ending.

For all its delicious colour and comedy, Wise Children is a serious and universal exploration of families in the broadest sense; the inter-generational trauma running through our blood as well as the families we adopt and love along the way. Few stones are left unturned in this magical tale of the triumphs and tragedies of the world of Nora and Dora from birth to old age. Ambition, abuse, regret and love abound - in short, the stuff that theatre is made off.

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