“Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks”. In Brixton, identical twin showgirls, Dora and Nora Chance celebrate their 75th birthday. On the other side of the Thames, in Chelsea, their father Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of the age turns 100. An invite to their father’s birthday party takes the Chances on a trip down memory lane, as they relive their difficult past. Shunned by their legitimate father, raised by their grandmother, the story of the sisters has both its highs and its lows.
Emma Rice’s touring adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children boasts spectacular production set design, by Vicki Mortimer, that brilliantly captures the dazzling razzmatazz of show business. The play’s title is adorned in glamorous Broadway lights at the rear of the stage, and a revolve is used to astonishing effect to display the garish, pink interior of the sisters’ caravan. There is no doubt that Wise Children is a visually arresting feast on the eyes, but at times there is so much glitz and glam that it becomes overwhelming. There are moments, such as during the songs that feature the entire company, where there is simply too much to look at, where the visual spectacle becomes overbearing.
Mortimer also deserves huge credit for her inspired costume design. As the story takes you through three distinct periods in the Chance’s past, three different pairs of actors are required to perform the evolution of the girls’ lives. The twins are always dressed identically, with ‘N’ or ‘D’ embroidered on their clothes to allow differentiation. The costumes of the elder characters, like Peregrine and Melchior Hazard become increasingly worn and dilapidated over time. Peregrine’s bright yellow checked trousers grow faded and frayed as the story continues. This is particularly effective in the scenes where all three incarnations of the characters join each other on stage. Each couple’s costumes are unique, but remain comparable with their older selves.
The story of Dora and Nora is told through a cacophony of puppetry, dance, and enjoyable, instantly recognisable songs like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Electric Avenue. It is an engaging way of storytelling, as the older twins remain on stage throughout, reliving their past.
Wise Children also has a heavy dose of Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. These are the parts I enjoyed the most. I fervently believe that Emma Rice was unjustly treated by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre so it was a delight to see her play satirise the excessive prestige associated with Shakespeare. Through Melchior Hazard’s amusingly hammed up, exaggerated renditions of the Bard’s most famous works, Rice also pokes fun at melodramatic nature of method actors.
However, I found that the play’s narrative meanders too much, and is simply too long, with many unnecessary scenes and characters. Rather than being told chronologically, the story flips back and forth from the present day to the past. Usually, I don’t mind this, but in Wise Children, it happens on far too many occasions, confusing the narrative and dragging it out. Characters such as Gorgeous George seem needless, as they add little to the already overwrought narrative.
There are also elements of the story that are suggested through nuances in the first half of the play but are unnecessarily pointed out to the audience in the second half. The affairs between some characters are subtly portrayed through the actors’ performances, without the need for them to be obviously explained to the audience later in the play. The same goes for the seedier, darker sides of the story, which are more powerful when conveyed through nuanced expression, rather than being blatantly pointed out to the audience.
The greatest resentment I have of Wise Children is the demeaning way Lady Atlanta’s character is reduced to being called ‘Wheelchair’ after she becomes paralysed. I haven’t read Angela Carter’s novel, so I am not sure whether this happens in her book. However, at a time where diversity and disability in the arts is severely inadequate, I am shocked that this play can be so derogatory towards a disabled character. I may be over-analysing it, but this really rubbed me up the wrong way.
Although Wise Children is an entertaining, lavish, visually spectacular play, there were some parts which did not sit well with me. At times it is too busy, and the narrative too overloaded.