Bewildering but entertaining, Emma Rice effectively highlights what ‘family’ really means as well as the different ways rejection can affect our lives – told through her unique brand of magical creativity. 

The cast of Wise Children at The Old Vic. Photo by Steve Tanner
(c) Steve Tanner.

It has to be said that initially on leaving Wise Children you are left wondering exactly what you have seen. But the longer you think about it, the more the pieces begin to fit together in this subtle play about family, illegitimacy and rejection that is wrapped lovingly in the world of theatre. Yes there are fleeting moments that bewilder and are difficult to place their relevance into the wider story, but for the most part Emma Rice’s production brings out the emotional core of Dora and Nora’s story.

Wise Children begins with twins Dora and Nora celebrating their 75th birthday and on their way to their father Melchior’s 100th birthday party (despite the fact he has never claimed legally they are his children). But the audience is soon swept back in time, tracing Dora and Nora’s lives up until that point from being rejected by their father and the death of their mother, all the way through to their career as show girls and many other highs and lows along the way.

Filled with plenty of elements of creative flair, not least Vicki Mortimer’s beautifully theatrical styled set and Etta Murfitt’s lively and playful choreography that effectively interweave Dora and Nora’s love of the world show business with the conflicting emotions they have towards their father’s rejection of them. This is particularly highlighted in Omari Douglas’s performance as showgirl Nora always falling in and out of love but ultimately left with tragedy. You really sense the character’s desperation for love and acceptance, in contrast to Dora (Melissa James) who wants affection but is too afraid to seek it. Both seem to use the world of theatre as a way to get the attention they desire – when actually it makes them feel lonelier and is quite a bittersweet discovery for them both.

While there is plenty of humorous moments throughout, with some sharply delivered lines along the way (trust me when I say you will never quite look at a bagel in the same way again!), the overall mood is melancholy and bittersweet – even at the end when history seems to repeat itself. Emma Rice never lets the audience forget that behind the laughter there is pain, rejection and secrets which are brutally exposed continuously throughout – captured in the final confrontation scene at Melchior’s birthday party.

Despite the occasional creative choice slightly hindering the story (I’m still not quite sure of the relevance of the butterflies and there are times when there are too many people on stage with nothing to do), there are plenty of larger than life characters that are strongly and charismatically performed by the cast.

In particular, Katy Owen as Grandma Chance is delightfully vulgar – direct and protective of Nora and Dora, she really steals the show swaggering around the stage letting everyone know what she thinks – whether she has clothes on or not! Elsewhere, Gareth Snook as the 75 year old Dora is naturally engaging, confiding in the audience the twins story with great effect and warmth that is delightful and Ankur Bahl is extremely convincing as the self-absorbed and vain young Melchior obsessing over his crown and career. It is a strong cast, all of whom are clearly enjoying themselves, offering a great energy in their performances.

It is not a perfect show, with some creative choices not helping to clarify the story, but there is no denying that Emma Rice has created a show that is filled with warmth and a strong emotional core that makes for delightful viewing.

By Emma Clarendon 

Wise Children continues to play at the Old Vic Theatre until the 10th November, before embarking on a UK tour . 

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐