Katherine MacAlister reviews Wise Children running at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday

The reaction to Emma Rice’s Wise Children was extraordinary. Some audience members at the Oxford Playhouse were on their feet cheering wildly, while others shook their heads in disbelief. The man next to me looked utterly bewildered.

But one thing was certain, the former Globe director’s debut, via her own theatre company, was unforgettable.

Her adaption of Angela Carter’s last novel about a pair of illegitimate twins brought up in theatreland was as colourful, edgy, shocking, vaudeville, vibrant and energetic as we had been led to suspect. Unarguably in-your-face, the premise was original, compelling and thought-provoking.

Because amidst the singing, dancing, musical numbers, racy costumes, innuendoes and smut, Rice addresses all the big issues.

From paedophilia, incest, poverty and homelessness to miscarriage and ageing, the whole remit of life’s nasty surprises races past in a dazzling and relentless array.

And there was sex. Lots of it. So much in fact that my reluctant neighbour would murmur “Oh not again,” every time the shagging recommenced. Think Matthew Bourne-crossed with saucy seaside postcard for a better idea.

But such is the cycle of life. And as the tale depicts Nora and Dora Chance, born out of wedlock to an absent father and a mother who dies in childbirth, brought up by their ‘grandmother’ in Brixton and paying their own way on stage as early as possible, promiscuity is an inevitability.

All of which was narrated by the 75 year-old twins, so ably played by Etta Murfitt and the wonderful Gareth Snook, while preparing for their father’s 100th birthday party, and reflecting on their own lives. “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people,” they solemnly tell us. Wise children indeed.

The pointed Shakespearian references also raised a smirk, a reference perhaps to Emma’s own ‘journey’ and new direction. A fitting outing then, not only for her debut but a tribute to her theatrical imagination.

So if Wise Children is tatty, tawdry and wonderfully sleazy, it is also full of life, love, family, loyalty and all its flaws.

Life does go on. 5/5

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