Unconventionally whacky yet importantly relevant. Shining a light on the significance of nature and nurture.

Wise children, as explained by director Emma Rice in an interview with A Younger Theatre, is a story of finding the play within our passion performing: “We are children and we have to be wise”. Through musical interludes underscoring (at times) quite controversial action, we are conscious of the ritualistic response that we feel is appropriate to give due to tradition; laughing and crying on cue, when in reality the action is ineffable!

The characterful story by Angela Carter takes us on a tale of heritage and the manipulation of the innocence of Young Dora (played by Bettrys Jones) and Young Nora (played by Mirabelle Gremaud), who are left without parents and claimed by every little girl’s dream to be on the stage. In some respects, it is a coming of age story as the girls learn the harsh reality of ‘the industry’ along with the heartbreak and loneliness it can bring. We see the innocence of the girls’ younger years being stripped away and replaced with volition and sterner stuff and then finally the reminiscent more fragile (though not entirely) Nora (played by Etta Murfitt) and Dora (played by Gareth Snook) as they experience consequences of their childhood maltreatment. However, it’s hardly all doom and gloom as they achieve the legitimacy and regard they should’ve had by birthright. 

The story has strong Brechtian influences with its subtle merciless messages intertwined upon a sea of hope and cheer that the theatre brings with it. These subtle tones are as small as Grandma Chance (played by Katy Owen) asking “what new words have you learnt today kids?” And the short and simple answer sounding: “vegetarianism” and “pacifism”. I appreciate that Rice, however, also provokes us with an argument for the legitimacy of fox hunting.

Casting director Sam Jones’s choices at first had me confused, but it didn’t take long before I realised that I was being challenged to accept the breaking of traditional stereotypes that a lot of mainstream theatres still structure shows upon today. Sam Jones breaking this convention gives an already powerful story even more nuances.

Bettrys Jones (Young Dora and ensemble) creates a magical atmosphere with her incredible voice, accompanied by the on-stage band (Stu Barker, Alex Heane and band leader Ian Ross), who are skilled in multiple instruments. They inspired me as a young actor-musician, providing proof that there is opportunity for us and not to be just hidden away in a corner. This is expertly demonstrated by Lady Atlanta (played by Patrycja Kujawska) as well, who expresses her character through skilful violin accompaniment as well as tragic action. 

Gorgeous George (played by Paul Hunter) and stage sweeper (played by Mike Sheperd) complement each other with perfect comic timing and clowning skills as they find the game with the audience (including with Rice’s new theatre school, taking an example from the French schools of Gaulier and Lecoq) and squeeze every giggle out of us deservedly. Their bravery to directly reach out to us outside the box of the scene pays off. 

The music written by Ross reminded me very strongly of The Grinning Man by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler; perhaps this is due to the dark undertones of the otherwise innocently cheery concept of Wise Children. Similarly, the Bunraku puppetry that are used to share the story of the young Dora and Nora as babies becoming toddlers and then adolescents is very similar to the work in The Grinning Man.

Wise Children is proof in the pudding that Emma Rice with her new company ‘Wise Children’ is a force to be reckoned with, and I’m looking forward to every bit of work she produces. Especially as she has set the bar so high!

Wise Children is playing at The Old Vic until 10 November. For more information and tickets, click here.