Wise Children is Angela Carter’s rambunctious last novel about illegitimacy, incest and Shakespearean illusion. It is also the name of Emma Rice’s new theatre company, which launches with this adaptation. Carter would surely have approved of such doubleness and reinvention; her work is filled with twins and revisionist retellings of old stories.
Dora and Nora – the central twins of Carter’s book – are Brixton-born septuagenarians, looking back on their lives as showgirls in the tawdry music halls of 1930s London. Here, they are represented by puppets, as their youngest incarnations, and by three couples: cartwheeling girls in pigtails (Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud), Amazonian showgirls with Louise Brooks bobs (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), and the 75-year-old dual storytellers (Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook), narrating their life stories with the cockney bonhomie of old-school entertainers.
Both Murfitt and Snook are almost always on stage, often alongside their younger counterparts. Their simultaneous presence reflects how past selves cast shadows on the present. More importantly, this multiplicity draws our eye to theatrical artifice, a recurring theme in Carter’s book. Rice’s Wise Children, which sits inventively somewhere between musical and play, is as much about performance as it is about the lives of the twins.
Their story emerges through flashbacks, cabaret acts and skits. The music-hall scenes keep faithful to the period, but there are a few cheeky slips into the popular culture of the 80s (the story is set in 1989) with a high-energy rendition of Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue and a folksy version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
Vicki Mortimer’s set exposes the mechanics of the staging in the most bewitching of ways and the cast retain a self-conscious sense of performance, too. The twins’ grandmother, played by Katy Owen, steals the show with saucy double entendres and fantastic physical comedy. They play their parts as if they are cabaret or pantomime performers, at pains never to become too real or human. The most emotionally wrenching moments (when the teenage twins are rejected by their father or when the grandmother dies) are never lingered on for long, and even in these moments there is a hint of comic burlesque.
The production expertly draws out the Shakespearean part of the story. Carter wrote of Shakespeare as the “great popular entertainer of all time” and felt his legacy had been misappropriated as a bastion of high culture. She creates a fabulous parody of the “thesp” in the mincing figure of the twins’ father, Melchior, and Shakespearean lines are dropped in like irreverent music-hall punchlines.
The bawdy humour is there, too, along with the gender-swapping. A male lover is played by a woman with a drawn-on moustache and lowered voice; the old, cross-dressed Dora quips: “It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” Rice captures perfectly Carter’s notion of gender as a playful, fluid performance.
It is a spectacular show, distilling the carnivalesque spirit of the book yet managing to control its many unruly parts and surfeit of imagination. Rice’s relaunch is a splashy one, celebrating the sheer razzle-dazzle of a life in theatre.
• Wise Children is at the Old Vic, London, until 10 November. Then touring.