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The show must go on – Nicholas Lezard reviews Wise Children

Arts | By Nicholas Lezard

While the theatres are dark, Nicholas Lezard reviews the bright lights of BBC iplayer: Wise Children

‘Like most family histories, mine and Nora’s is a complicated affair,’ says 75-year-old Dora Chance (Gareth Snook) near the beginning of Wise Children, ‘and, if you doze off now, it’ll be a very long evening.’

Dora and her twin sister, Nora (Etta Murfitt), have been given an invitation to their father’s 100th birthday; the vast bulk of the play is the telling of this family history. So, technically speaking, if you doze off during the explanation, it will actually seem like a very short evening.

And I hate to say it, but honesty compels me: if you count the time between my starting to watch this show and its end, it was, by some margin, the longest evening of my life.

This was for two reasons: it is being broadcast on the BBC iPlayer, so you can pause it – which you can’t do in a real theatre. So to recreate the theatre experience, I sat down at 7.30, having charged myself £7.50 for a glass of nasty red wine. And at the interval, I paused it, emptied the rest of the bottle into myself and didn’t start watching again until lunchtime the next day. The reason for this was the same reason you don’t visit the dentist 20 minutes after your previous visit.

I knew I was going to be in for a long evening at the very beginning, when Dora asks us, as if telling a joke, what the similarity is between London and Budapest. The answer, which is not funny, is that they are two cities separated by a river. I’m not complaining about that. I’m complaining about the troupe of thesps standing behind her. They all wear shorts, T-shirts with a single star on the chest and berets in various pastel hues. And I’m not complaining about them, really. What I am complaining about is that as Snook delivers his non-punchline, the rest of the cast behind him do jazz hands. You know, that gesture suggesting a dim memory of Al Jolson singing Mammy.

Oh Lord, I thought – it’s going to be that kind of show. I had seen one of the twins in an earlier incarnation (either Bettrys Jones or Mirabelle Gremaud) enter the stage by cartwheeling onto it; if you saw my review of My Brilliant Friend a few months ago, you’ll know I take a very dim view of cartwheels in the theatre, for they are a harbinger of enforced fun. ‘If you do not like our exuberance,’ says the cartwheel, ‘you are a miserable, internally withered human being.’

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The problem is that it has been adapted at all. For now we have the problem not only of how to represent a huge cast and historical sweep on the stage, but also of how to direct a play about actors and dancers without its disappearing up its own backside with self-love. This is a production that revels in itself, and in every convention and cliché of the modern theatre.

Gender roles are non-rigid, which of course is very venerable in the theatre (there’s a lot of Shakespeare, or nods to him, in both play and novel), but it demands a certain indulgence on the audience’s part to believe that a slightly-built lady with a deliberately ludicrous stick-on moustache is a manly lover, especially when Dora and Nora (at this point in their history played by Melissa James and Omari Douglas) tower over her. (A word about Melissa James. She is probably the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and her legs are … well, let’s just say that it wasn’t only professional duty that dragged me back to Act 2.)

This is theatre as childish spectacle. You can see why it was done this way, as a homage to music hall, but it’s a too-knowing raid of the dressing-up box; most spectacularly, the grotesque naked bodysuit worn by Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), the gorblimey Cockney from Brixton who adopts the abandoned baby twins. There are dolls; there are cast members waving bits of tissue paper on sticks to represent fire; there is juggling; there is drag; and other horrors I do not wish to recall. It is a production that blows a party streamer in your ear for two-and-a-quarter hours, and begs for the kind of notices that say ‘an evening of joyous fun’, along with the word ‘delightful’.

Well, here you go. Joyous. Delightful. Evening. Long.

This story was from May 2020 issue. Subscribe Now