Wise Children by Angela Carter: Book and Theatre Review

Wise Children Angela CarterI went to see ‘Wise Children’ at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo last week after Rebecca of bookishbeck won a pair of tickets and very kindly offered her spare one to me. I also managed to track down a copy of the book from the library and read it this week. ‘Wise Children’ is Angela Carter’s final novel published in 1991 a year before her death and the stage adaptation is Emma Rice’s first project with her new theatre company (also called Wise Children) since leaving her role as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016.

Dora and Nora Chance are the illegitimate twin daughters of one of the great Shakespearean actors, Sir Melchior Hazard, whose twin brother Peregrine is believed to be dead. As Dora and Nora celebrate their 75th birthday towards the end of the 20th century, Melchior is about to turn 100 (and possibly Peregrine too…). The story is narrated by Dora who looks back on the sisters’ humble beginnings in south London brought up by the eccentric Grandma Chance and their career as a double act as chorus girls in the weird and wonderful world of Hollywood, theatre and music hall variety shows. 

The theme of duality lies at the heart of the story and it’s easy to see how Carter has influenced Ali Smith, who wrote the introduction to the Vintage Books edition of ‘Wise Children’. It isn’t a particularly long novel but it is stuffed with detail and inspired by an eclectic range of sources. References to Shakespeare are abundant, particularly ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the various contrasts, opposites and contradictions in the story itself take many forms: illusion and reality, north and south London, social class, legitimacy and illegitimacy, incidences of mistaken identity and of course the twins themselves. One of the most striking aspects is how very little ultimately separates the highbrow culture associated with Shakespeare’s plays and the social circles that Sir Melchior moves in and the somewhat less refined entertainment industry where Dora and Nora have made their mark.

Wise Children Old Vic Theatre

The stage adaptation captures the subversive and tragi-comic tone of the novel. There is a fair amount of over-the-top pantomime-style farce but there are some genuinely poignant and affecting scenes too, although reading the novel afterwards shows that some of the darker parts of the story are somewhat less prominent here. Whereas the book is narrated only by Dora, both sisters break the fourth wall as they tell their life story. Grandma Chance played by Katy Owen is a foul-mouthed riot while Nora and Dora are initially portrayed as puppets and then three sets of actors of different genders and ethnicities – most notably Melissa James and Omari Douglas who are brilliant as the twins at the peak of their career.

As a life-affirming celebration of theatre and showbusiness, the exuberant energy of this production is hard to beat. The theatre production of ‘Wise Children’ will be showing at the Old Vic until 10th November and will then tour nationally until April 2019. I am also keen to read more of Carter’s work and will probably look out for her collection of feminist fairytales ‘The Bloody Chamber’ next.


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14 responses to “Wise Children by Angela Carter: Book and Theatre Review

  1. This is very timely for me. I had a note in my diary to book Wise Children at the Bristol Old Vic tomorrow!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alastair Savage

    Interestingly, it was when this novel was snubbed by the Booker judges that they set up a prize for fiction by women, in protest at that year’s all-male shortlist.
    As well The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus https://alastairsavage.wordpress.com/2018/10/16/nights-at-the-circus-by-angela-carter/ is in a similar vein to Wise Children, although I think it would be impossible to convert that one into a stage play!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is my favourite of her novels and I hope I can get round to seeing it if it comes to Birmingham.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. natashaketel

    I am studying ‘The Bloody Chamber’ right now for A Level. The writing is lyrical and hypnotising. I couldn’t recommend it enough, especially the titular tale, ‘The Lady in the House of Love’ and ‘The Erl-King’. I hope you enjoy it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. booksloom

    Took awhile to get into the writing style which was expectedand then it just clicked and flowed beautifully. Alot of it is kinda a flashback/history of the Chance twins and it’s interesting


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  7. It took me a little bit longer to finish the book and get around to writing it up. My review is scheduled for tomorrow, but I wanted to pop back and comment on yours properly — and make sure I didn’t just repeat everything you had to say 😉 I thought it was really interesting [SPOILER territory] how the production made more of the implied incident between Dora and Peregrine when she was 13. It was a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the book, but they showed it on the stage twice. I suppose it fits with the zeitgeist, though it seemed like a strangely dark turn towards the end. Anyway, brilliant review. I’m glad you enjoyed the play and the book so much. Thanks for joining me!


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