Originally published in The Bristol Post
‘’The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.’’ Director Emma Rice is steeped in the theatrical, and her first show for her new company is packed with it. Wise Children is both the name this newly formed company has taken and the title of this, their first production. An adaptation of Angela Carter’s 1991 novel about a theatrical dynasty, spanning a century and loaded with Shakespeare, sex and song, it can exhaust in its constant frenzy of invention, but a surplus of ideas is always preferable than too few.
Carter’s novel, concerning showgirl twins Dora and Nora, is at heart a celebration of the jobbing performer, the hard graft and chilly rented rooms, the passionate fumbles and work created family. Could there be a veiled barb to Rice’s former employers The Globe, who unceremoniously dropped her when she threatened to work her own form of magic on the Bard? After all, it’s the serious Shakespearian actor who is the villain here, a first-rate cad who fathers the twins and then does a runner, only employing them later to be eye candy for his dodgy Revue. It’s the song and dance girls who have heart, one feels Rice has a fond affinity with them.
She certainly assembles a company like few others, working with performers as diverse as ex-dancers from Matthew Bourne, musical theatre vets and Told by an Idiot’s Paul Hunter. Her work is gender, colour, body and nationality blind; men play women, women men, and it matters not a jot, each play with such conviction that they convince you instantly that Mirabelle Gremaud’s young Nora, could turn into the leggy Omari Douglas who would morph into Gareth Snook’s considered older version. There is so much talk about diversity in theatrical media, but Rice doesn’t just talk a good game, she walks the walk.
A little bit knowing, Snook at one-point drops ‘old women resemble nothing more than a man in drag’, and a little bit sexy, it could do with honing on what is important, letting its audience see in close-up, instead of another long shot that incorporates too much. Some performances stand out though, Rice regular Katy Owen brings a touch of Catherine Tate’s Nana to Grandma Chance, an East End landlady with a penchant for wandering around au naturel, while Douglas and Melissa George bring glamour and earthiness to the adult showgirls. Snook is also a touching presence, much more than a bloke in drag and with a strong singing voice to boot.
Wise Children’s three-week residency in Bristol feels like a homecoming for Rice, and the show fits like a glove in the country’s oldest working theatre. Wise Children have arrived, and the Bristol theatrical scene should be very thankful indeed.
Wise Children plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 16 February