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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Wise Children
Old Vic Theatre  Autumn 2018

As any fan of Kneehigh Theatre knows, director Emma Rice creates theatrical images of great imagination, which at their best (which is frequent) evoke the emotional content of a text with exquisite and overpowering beauty.

And at their less-than-best the theatrical inventiveness is still evident, but without the emotional resonances, and you are left with the vague sense of what might have been if it had all worked. 

Rice's adaptation of Angela Carter's last novel is filled with imaginative stage pictures and effects, too few of which work. There are isolated breath-catching moments that remind you of Rice at her best, but they are adrift in too much stage business and busy-ness. 

Wise Children centres on twin former showgirls Nora and Dora, who remember from the perspective of old age their own lives and the tangled back stories of their family. 

Starting three generations back their family history is defined equally by love of performance and by serial cuckoldries and illegitimacies. 

The girls themselves aren't absolutely sure which of a pair of twin brothers is their father, and when their putative father remarries, it turns out that the twins produced from that match are in fact his brother's. (Adaptor Rice actually omits several characters and further sets of twins but the cast is already irreparably cluttered.) 

The point, as the title suggests, is that when you can't always be sure who your father is, family is something that has to be created and held together by choice and will. 

When the audience is not distracted by colourful secondary characters, like the grandmother who insists on walking around naked or the surprisingly-not-evil stepmother, it has to keep track of the three sets of performers who play Nora and Dora respectively as teenagers, showgirls and old women, while ignoring the fact that at least one of those is a man in drag. 

Actually, some of the too-rare moments when Rice's staging does achieve full Kneehigh-quality evocativeness come when all three sets of twins are onstage together, capturing the ways reality and memory interconnect. 

Other good moments come with Rice's signature use of classic popular music to colour dramatic moments, from the show-biz razzle-dazzle of 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love,' through the lush emotionalism of 'The Way You Look Tonight' (accompanying the one-night stand that is one sister's memory of great romance) and the startlingly appropriate 'Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby,' to a chastened and quietly reflective 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.' 

But those are isolated moments. Too often the stage is just too full of characters doing nothing in particular and the plot too full of incidents that either go nowhere or, like a very late hint of child abuse, suggest directions that the play chooses not to follow. 

Wise Children is evidence that Emma Rice has lost none of her imaginative power as a stager of plays. But, as with the occasional Kneehigh misstep before it, too little of that imagination really serves the text or the audience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Wise Children - Old Vic Theatre 2018  
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