At the end of a programme essay, Emma Rice wonders what Angela Carter would have made of her production of Wise Children, Carter’s 1991 novel about a theatrical dynasty of seediness, sparkle and scandalous illegitimacy. Sadly we will never know, but I cannot imagine anyone who loves theatre not being bowled over by this life-enhancing, brilliantly uninhibited, all-singing and dancing (and let’s not forget the incontinent talking) adaptation. Before the show has started you see cast members in coquettish berets and short shorts limbering up, for the novel is about being behind the scenes as well as treading the boards, and in Carter’s hands – and Rice’s – there is a fantastic narrative sense throughout: the play is the thing and it can do anything. Misfortune brings on more zest – there is no holding back. Stars? I am not sure why you would stop at five.
The words “wise children” (also the name of Rice’s new company) are up in starry lights, alongside a pleasingly ancient caravan (designer Vicki Mortimer), home to Dora and Nora Chance, illegitimate twins of the preposterous old thespian Sir Melchior Hazard, who has never acknowledged his daughters. The show celebrates the theatrical idea of identity as provisional – out-Shakespearing Shakespeare. Characters change sex, colour and age in the time it takes for a makeshift curtain to rise. And the production explores, through wild comedy, the idea that acting is a way of surviving. This is a phoenix of a show (won’t the managers of the Globe be kicking themselves at Rice’s departure?).
The twins, in their dotage, are played by Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook. The latter’s Dora is particularly delicious, combining warmth, pathos and camp innuendo. And as Nora’s younger showgirl incarnation, Omari Douglas is sensational – the show would be worth seeing for his exaggeratedly seductive dancing alone. The cast brims with talent – another breathtaking dancer is Sam Archer as young Peregrine, the twins’ uncle, a zany lepidopterist who leaps about in yellow tartan trousers, fuelled by sibling rage at his cad-and-bounder brother. As young Melchior, Ankur Bahl is hilarious in his vain disdain and plum velvet knickerbockers, and Paul Hunter’s elder Melchior alternates splendidly between posh and barrow-boy accents in his Shakespearean excursions. My one suggestion is that Katy Owen’s spirited Grandma Chance be less shouty (though I suppose she has plenty to shout about).
The show is enlivened by the costume drama of Carter’s prose. I loved her description of south London’s changing social profile as a “diaspora of the affluent”. South London is further saluted in a phenomenal eruption of dancing to Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue (the old twins are buying “clobber” from Brixton market for Melchior’s party). Carter’s line, “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people”, also gets a laugh. The show itself is a feel-good, feel-sad mix. It triumphantly and lewdly sends up theatre and shows its power. It nods regretfully at vanishing youth – mourning the loss (in a fire) of eyebrows, theatre, a paper crown – but revels in life lived, at all ages, to the full.
• Wise Children is at the Old Vic, London, until 10 November