This is jolly good fun. Based on Angela Carter’s final novel, a picaresque romp through the lives of twin sisters, Nora and Dora Chance, all human life is there even if director and writer Emma Rice has cut quite a lot of the plot. The blurb promises ‘show girls and Shakespeare, sex and scandal, music, mischief and mistaken identity’ and the show delivers.
There is a phenomenon in the theatre business called the ‘triple threat’, an actor who can not only act but sings and dances well too. Outside the USA they used to be extremely rare, but British drama schools have caught up and Rice has most of them in her cast. I don’t have space to elucidate the individual merits of all 12 performers, although they each deserve a mention, but let me tell you this – an actor who can sing, act and do very convincing entrechats is a rare thing.
The twins’ story, narrated by Dora, is one you hear in many dressing rooms, that of the illegitimate issue of a dalliance between an actor and his landlady’s daughter in a boarding house. This time it’s in Brixton, their mother dies in childbirth and the father Melchior Hazard goes off on tour, never to be seen again. Then Uncle Peregrine turns up and peripatetically cares for them until they discover their real father has become a famous actor. Smitten by showbiz, they go into the chorus and when they are 17 their father finally gets in touch and invites them to join him in the West End. It’s downhill all the way after that, in a very entertaining slalom around sex, death, sex, divorce, sex, attempted murder. You get the idea.
Rice keeps the stage full of business but doesn’t distract us from the main action. If you’ve seen her work with Kneehigh (her previous incarnation as a director before she left to briefly run Shakespeare’s Globe) you will be familiar with the style. The other obvious connection with Kneehigh is Mike Shepherd who plays Peregrine Hazard. Shepherd founded Kneehigh in Cornwall in 1980 and gave Rice the chance to direct her first show when she was an actor with the company. Shepherd plays the darling old lepidopterist and child abuser Peregrine with enormous charm.
Everyone doubles, except the senior Nora and Dora, and some triple. This is carried off beautifully, to the point where you find yourself thinking, ‘OMG, is that…’, and it often is. The creative team have done a great job, with a nod to designer Vicki Mortimer who has created a set that encompasses the world of the play in a cutaway caravan, and her frocks are a hoot. She has also discovered the anonymising power of pastel berets, something I plan to use next time I’m on the run.
If I have a quibble, and it’s a very small quibble, the show suffers from a common problem with adapted novels that don’t slot neatly into a five-act structure. The narrative is episodic and contingent, so the incidents are not as connected as they are in your normal play, with a concomitant lack of build in the narrative. It also makes it more tiring to watch as you have to keep registering new developments. But this show is absolutely worth it.
Rice left the Globe after a year and quickly set up her own company, also called Wise Children, with nearly £2 million from Arts Council England. This was a bone of some contention in the arts community at the time. A few more shows like this and it will be money well spent. But don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself. After all, it’s your money.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Images by Steve Tanner