York Theatre Royal

Wise Children

04/06/20

BBC iPlayer

Emma Rice’s glorious stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children is the most exciting theatrical production I’ve seen in my own living room, since lockdown began and I started trawling online offerings. Filmed at the York Theatre Royal, it’s right there on iPlayer (until July 9th), nestling amongst the Zoom panel shows and re-runs of old series, just waiting for you to click that mouse and let the mayhem begin.

It’s wild and wonderful, bawdy and tawdry – like watching Carter’s story come tumbling from the book, the word made flesh. Emma Rice’s adaptation revels in the novel’s magnificent excesses, amping up the theatricality, highlighting the slippery nature of identity and what it means to know who we are.

This is the story of illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance, who are celebrating their seventy-fifth birthday as the play opens. In this iteration, they are played by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt, who remain on stage throughout, narrating and commenting on  the tale as it unfolds. Their mother dies giving birth to them; their father, the preposterously successful Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl/Paul Hunter) refuses to acknowledge them, and they are taken in by their mother’s landlady, Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), a shouty naturist, who puts them to work in the music halls as soon as possible. Their father’s twin brother, Peregrine (Sam Archer/Mike Shepherd), looks after them financially, and spoils them with presents whenever he visits. But the Hazards’ debauched extravagance means that nothing is immutable, and there are stepmothers, half-siblings and, yes, more twins at every turn. The Chances’ lives are never dull.

But this is an ode to theatre as well as the twins’ story. We are backstage and on stage as well as in the auditorium. There’s puppetry and physical theatre, Shakespearean tragedy and end-of-pier comedy. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing,’ says Dora, and we see this realised in the fabulous teenage Dora and Nora (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), as they relish their showgirl flamboyance and explore their sexuality.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is as audacious and vibrant as the characters: a little touring caravan and ‘Wise Children’ spelled out in lights – all bright vivacity, a carnival of colour. The costumes are gaudy and unapologetically showbiz; Grandma Chance’s naked body suit is cartoonish, exaggerated and silly. It all works, a cacophony of artifice and illusion.

If you like theatre, then you will like this.

iPlayer. Now.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Railway Children

 

York Theatre Royal and the National Railway Museum

Encore Cinema Screening

28/03/16

I saw this play when it opened in 2008, and was blown away by the site-specific production: the idea of staging it inside the National Railway Museum, once realised, seemed at once audacious and really bloody obvious. The tracks made a natural traverse, and the audience, seated on the platforms either side, were closely involved with the action. It was an ingenious and engaging piece, and one I’ve talked about ever since. It was no surprise to see its run extended, year on year, nor to see it relocate to King’s Cross for London’s theatre crowd.

So today’s cinema screening was a welcome opportunity to see this production again. And it didn’t disappoint. Of course, a film can never quite evoke the immersive atmosphere of live theatre, but this was beautifully done, capturing the essence of this charming adaptation of E. Nesbit’s famous book.

The story is well known: Bobbie, Phyllis, Peter and their mother are obliged to relocate to the countryside after their father is called away; they don’t know where he has gone, but they do know that they are suddenly – and frighteningly – poor. The servants and luxuries they have grown up with have all gone, and they have to learn to live a very different kind of life. They gravitate towards the railway station, where they make friends, and come to learn a lot about themselves and others too.

In its original form, The Railway Children is a sweet – if somewhat cloying – tale; here, it is given a dash of spice, as the adult Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter reminisce, telling their story with a knowing, grown-up edge. This conceit works well; it seems natural when they engage with the audience, or point out moments that are difficult to stage. It’s humorous and witty – but still tear-jerking: the essence of the story is not diluted by the fresh approach. Is there anyone alive who doesn’t cry when – in print, on screen or on stage – Bobbie cries, “Oh daddy, my daddy”? If there is, I’ve never met them.

The performances are very good throughout (although Andrina Carroll, as Mother, did have a tendency to shout), but it’s the staging and design that are the stars of this show. Bare wooden blocks are pushed along the tracks, with simple props placed on them to evoke a range of locations. The platform and bridge are incorporated well, and the appearance of the hulking, steaming locomotive is a real wow moment.

If you haven’t seen this already, it’s certainly one to look out for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield