Bristol Old Vic theatre review: Wise Children

Vivienne Kennedy reviews Wise Children, the first production by Emma Rice’s new company, also called Wise Children. It opened at Bristol Old Vic on Wednesday and runs until Saturday 16 February.

“Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people”

There is indeed plenty of tragedy in Angela Carter’s Wise Children, which Emma Rice has adapted for the stage, but the heartbreak comes with a generous helping of comedy and a huge amount of joy too. We are only three and a bit weeks into the new year, but Wise Children has set the bar high and I will be, very pleasantly, surprised if I see anything I enjoy more this year (although I do have Matthew Bourne’s wonderful swans coming up soon).

23 April – it’s not just Shakespeare’s birthday, chorus girls Nora and Dora Chance are turning 75 and, over on the other side of the Thames, another set of twins, Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, are celebrating their century. If there was ever a day to let skeletons out of the closet, this is it!

Taking the form of a look back over more than 100 years of family (and better-than-family) history, Wise Children ticks all the boxes for me. It has music and dancing, sex and scandal, mistaken identity and mischief, plus, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, tragedy and comedy. Oh, and more than a handful of Shakespearean quotes and references. Did I mention puppets? Yes, there’s puppetry too. And butterflies, lots and lots of butterflies.

A cast of 12 plus three musicians play all the characters, including child, adult and elderly versions of each set of twins, and their predecessors too. Men play women, women play men, and skin colour doesn’t matter one iota. It sounds confusing, but, really, it isn’t. It all makes perfect sense… and then something is thrown in at almost the very end to make you question all that’s gone before.

The story has me hooked, the music makes me sigh with pleasure*, the sets and costumes are stunning, and every single movement is choreographed to stylish perfection. If I had to choose one word to sum it up, it couldn’t be anything other than ‘beautiful’ – so beautiful I find myself close to tears more than once.

I’ve never read Angela Carter’s novel but I will now and I strongly suspect this won’t be the last time I see this show. I just know I am going to spot something I missed this time round, some little detail that escaped me because I was too busy watching someone, do something, somewhere else on the stage. Actually, if I could go again right now, I would.

With a sensible age recommendation of 14+, this is not a show for children but any Weston-super-Parents who can get a sitter should do everything in their power to get tickets. I can’t believe anyone will be anything other than utterly delighted by Wise Children.

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*I wasn’t expecting Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue and I now have a new favourite version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun)

Photo: Steve Tanner

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