I remember reading Angela Carter’s novel about the dancing girls ‘The Lucky Chances’, Nora and Dora, a few years ago and was very intrigued to see how it would be adapted.
I know Emma Rice’s work from her two decades at Kneehigh, including their production of another Carter work, Nights at the Circus, which I saw in Leeds in 2006.
I knew from this it was definitely possible for Wise Children to be adapted effectively. Rice now leads her new company, also entitled Wise Children, but this initial show – which has its press night on the 17 October – has a familiar feel and the creative flair we have come to expect.
When we meet Dora Chance, on her 75th birthday, just five minutes older than her sister Nora, she – played by Gareth Snook – tells us about their home before a party invitation arrives from the great actor Sir Melchior Hazard, their father, now a hundred years old but he has never acknowledged them.
In planning for the party we see the twins’ history played out for us from conception to toddling tappers, from puberty and first love, from disappointments to butterflies.
This is a piece of dark, honest drama with period songs, a heavy dose of magical realism, and disturbing undertones. The book actually went a step further with obsession and implied incest, but this show tiptoes around that to some extent.
We meet the twins portrayed through three sets of actors, and casting is gender neutral with the teenage Nora and elderly Dora both played by men. Sometimes more than one set are on stage at once, which is effective and emotionally engaging.
The Chance girls are brought up by their dead mother’s landlady, ‘Grandma’, and are taken care of by their father’s freewheeling brother Perry, who spends money on them but a strange relationship with both is implied, and there are long absences when he isn’t around.
Melchior, now married with frightful ginger twins of his own, reveres them but treats his older girls are curiosities only. Once they have moved from end of the pier jobs with Max Miller-lite comic Gorgeous George, they join their father in Shakespeare, but does he want them for themselves or for their odd dance-strip routine?
Nora grows to be an outwardly confident glamourpuss, sleeping around and hiding her feelings, while Dora stays in the background. They share a boyfriend, gifted to Dora by Nora when they hit eighteen, and continue to live as two halves of the same coin.
A toy theatre, faulty light bulbs, a caravan, orange scarves, an animated flight across London, and doubled up casting helps pull out the shady glamour of the footlights and the misunderstandings of family, sex and secrets.
This adaptation is joyous, always interesting, and even with a few remaining fluffs, mistakes and longuers which will probably be gone by press night, this is a stunning gem of a show with a hard working ensemble and an accomplished distellation of a complex book.
Many characters have been snipped and storylines slightly altered, but from the time we meet the Chances as puppet dolls through to old age, as they get – and miss – their own chances and where the living ultimately walk among the dead, we are walking with them.
Gareth Snook is surprisingly tender as the ageing Dora, and Omari Douglas is fantastic as the tarty mid-period showgirl Nora. Melissa James (showgirl Dora) and Etta Murfitt (elderly Nora) may be less showy, but it is interesting to follow the trajectory of these girls/women as their lives evolve.
Long-time Rice collaborator Mike Shepherd does well in a variety of roles, ultimately becoming the older Perry, and you can almost imagine young Sam Archer who plays Perry in his prime may have ended up this way; less convincing is the transformation of Ankur Bahl as Melchoir into Paul Hunter, who previously mimicked those smutty Miller jokes.
Patrycja Kujawska is excellent as both Lady Atalanta and the boy shared by the growing twins; Katy Owen is a domineering Grandma with a soft heart, a lot of pride, and a fondness for stout, and it is fun to see the acting of Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud as the young twins Dora and Nora, such a contrast to the dreadful Imogen and Saskia.
Playing out after curtain call with ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ underlines the clever use of songs throughout – not simply the period pieces but also work by Louis Jordan and Cyndi Lauper. The greaseprint is thick but it can’t cover the cracks.
Well done to the company for hitting the sexual complexities of this novel, and in making a moment or two genuinely shocking even when the story paints a smile.
Wise Children is a special show which is well worth your time with sparkles, grotty dressing rooms, mirrors and a little bit of ‘Electric Avenue’. You will go out with a song in your heart and a tear in your eye.
Rehearsal photos by Steve Tanner. Production photos from the Old Vic Twitter account.