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A wacky and hilarious love letter to theatre

Wise Children, Belgrade, Coventry, to Saturday, April 6.

What a treat! Emma Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s final novel is a labour of love if ever there was one. The book is brought to life on stage using theatre in all its forms: music hall, Shakespeare, end-of-pier comedy, magic and even puppetry all have their place.

It's visually spectacular and energetic, wacky and hilarious, but with dark undercurrents running through it.

The play tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, identical twin daughters of famed Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, though a question mark hangs over their true parentage.

On their 75th birthday the twins find themselves sifting through their memories, reminiscing about their own stage careers. One of the sisters sets the scene and the tone of much of the humour: “What did we do? Got it in one. We used to be song and dance girls. We can still lift a leg higher than your average dog, if called for.” Rice has assembled a multi-talented cast to tell the story that starts with the sisters receiving an invitation to their estranged father’s 100th birthday party.

As the story is unveiled, three different pairs of actors (and puppets) play Dora and Nora as they grow from babies, to girls, to women; the genders, races and accents of the performers change as they age, but somehow it all makes perfect sense.

Rice’s adaptation does not shy away from the plot’s more subversive elements. The play is full of energetic bonking, there are hints of incest and even child abuse. Dysfunctional is hardly the word for Dora and Nora's family. There are also a couple of jokes about old-fashioned actor-managers taking liberties with their talented actors. Some things don’t change.

The stage set and effects work brilliantly as does the depiction of passing time and generations, and the cast are all terrific. They nearly all take on several roles, they sing, they dance. One, Patrycja Kujawska, plays the violin; another, Sam Archer, the ukelele; yet another, the harp.

Katy Owen is a magnificently coarse and frequently nude Grandma Chance, Paul Hunter plays Melchior and also does a brilliant turn as a bawdy end-of-pier comic in the oo-er missus style of Doddy or Frankie Howerd.

The whole thing is an absolute joy. It comes across as a huge love letter to theatre - one that encompasses its seedier aspects as well as its power to transform and enchant.

For tickets go to: The age recommendation is 14-plus.

Wise Children is also the name of a new theatre company created and led by Emma Rice. Supported by the Arts Council, its aim is to train artists of the future and flood the theatre world with new voices and new stories. Challenging the fact that in 2016, 42 per cent of BAFTA winners attended a private school, the new company has started the School for Wild Children where 50 per cent of the places will be free.

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