Wise Children at the Old Vic – Angela Carter’s love letter to South London

Angela Carter was born in 1940 so there is no big anniversary this year but for some reason she seems everywhere: This summer gave us a fantastic TV documentary which made me proud to live in country where programs about authors are being shown on Saturday night at prime time. Since then the BBC published several audio plays based on Angela Carter’s retold fairy tales – the part of her publications I am far more familiar with. In continental Europe is associated first and foremost with the film The Company of Wolves from 1984 and it has been with me since I first saw it. But before I read any of her actual books I joined an evening on her oeuvre at Wilton’s Music Hall (where all her many show biz characters would have felt surely at home) with her publisher and her biographer in discussion.

Now I am in the Old Vic Theatre, a London original in Lambeth, a venue rooting back to 1818, and have listened to director Emma Rice’s podcast (still continuing) on this fascinating production of Wise Children. I have not read the novel and was afraid of spoilers but this fear is considered.

The Old Vic Theatre on The Cut in Southwark turns 200 years old

In the centre of this London fairy tale are retired showgirls Dora and Nora from a family with an exceptionally high number of twins – so many, that puppeteers jump in to fill in the roles in early years. Indeed, we learn about so many stages of their life that gender and skin colour of the actors playing them becomes random naturally; Dora and Nora are a mindset, not a travesty. Angela Carter died in 1992 but for some reason I am sure she would have approved; after all she wrote that fatherhood is a hypothesis, mothers are a fact. Take this, nuclear family set up.

Dora and Nora are being taken on their seventh birthday from their Brixton home in a caravan to the Old Vic itself, then as teenagers to Brighton in Angela Carter’s hauntingly wonderful declaration of love to South London. Emma Rice retells the twins’ stories around their career and unusual relatives in a polaroid colour palette – retro, warm and filled with bittersweet memories. But everyone must learn that nothing is as rosy as we want to remember things, and family especially not. There is danger luring in nostalgia, she teaches us, and further also that without it we cannot afterwards be thankful for the times we have been given. Because sometimes we can indeed chose our families.

As I am on my own I have dared the experiment to opt for the “Severe restricted bench” seats high up on the side of the stage. It works until I am no longer sitting alone and fellow audience members squeeze in a bit too close. I am glad I do not have a back problem. Yet. High up the velvety bench my feet dangle and unfortunately also the feet of the person behind me.

None of this matters in the end. As a blessing for the way home I have Girls Just Wanna Have Fun sung to as a lullaby. I want to see theatre like this for the rest of my life. It feels like being home. Can you be seriously in love with a play?

Wise Children – written by Angela Carter, adapted by Emma Rice

***** out of 5 stars

After its run at the The Old Vic, the play Wise Children toured through the UK. The filming from the York Theatre Royal was made available 2020 on BBC iplayer as part of the Culture in Quarantine initiative and can now be accessed for a fee on the Wise Children website.

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