Updated: May 31, 2021
Emma Rice, after Angela Carter
Wise Children and The Old Vic
HOME , Manchester
26 February 2019 – 2 March 2019; run time 2hr 30min
It’s a heady mixture of spectacle, comedy, music and dance, all based on the novel by Angela Carter that tells the story of two former showgirl twins whom we meet on their 75th birthday.
There’s a lot of backstory to fill in: in fact we go right back to their grandmother’s youth in Queen Victoria’s golden days, and gradually discover they are the disowned daughters of a philandering Shakespearean actor-manager. Brought up by the naturist, vegetarian theatrical landlady they call granny, the thespian’s lepidopterist (and wealthy) brother constantly re-enters their lives and brings them into the career path of their appalling, successful, real father, his wife and his appalling, useless daughters.
There’s no business like show business, and this is a sentimental, nostalgic fantasy homage to the biz, with all the contrived twists and turns a novel should have – a kind of Les Miserables of the stage. You know who the good guys are – warm-hearted, grafting and poor – and you know who the baddies are – false, successful, heartless and rich.
Telling it in a single evening in the theatre is no mean achievement, and that’s what Emma Rice and her creative colleagues (who have named their company after this piece) achieve so cleverly.
And if you think you’ve seen some of the same vivid, all-dancing story style before, take note of the credit to the company’s movement director and this show’s choreographer, Etta Murfitt (who also appears in one of the lead roles). She is the right-hand woman to Matthew Bourne, and a performer in many of his most successful narrative ballets.
The entire company are dancers and singers, as well as actors, and almost all take multiple roles as we journey through infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age of the main protagonists. This is what makes it all so exhilarating, with the musical side deserving particular credit (Ian Ross is composer and musical director). There is an affecting use of classic songs like Let’s Face the Music and Dance and The Way You Look Tonight, and at the end a snatch of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (though whether that’s meant ironically or not you will have to judge for yourself).
Which brings us to the rather darker side of the story. All political careers end in failure, and all showbiz careers end in rejection, and the second half of the show brings things up to date as the girls eke out their declining years caring for the wheelchair-bound, cast-aside former wife of the ‘great man’ who is their real dad. Even a let’s-feel-young-again roll for one of them, with his equally aged brother, brings back memories of the sins of his past.
The storyline attempts a kind of redemption as the girls in their dotage care for unwanted infants just as Granny cared for them, and remember their motto, ‘What joy it is to dance and sing …’
But there’s another line – among many – that sticks in the mind: ‘Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people’. Exactly.