Filmed at York Theatre Royal, Emma Rice’s Wise Children is streaming on BBC iPlayer

Showgirl memoirs: Katy Owen, left, Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook in Wise Children. Pictures: Steven Tanner

YORK Theatre Royal’s co-production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, made with Emma Rice’s company Wise Children and The Old Vic, is now available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

Adapted and directed by Rice, ever-innovative former artistic director of Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the show marked the debut of her new Bristol company.

Wise Children was co-produced with The Old Vic, London, where the world premiere opened in 2018, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Oxford Playhouse and York Theatre Royal.

In March 2019, a performance of Rice’s exuberantly impish, musical vision of Carter’s last novel was filmed live at the York theatre with support from The Space.

The 138-minute play will be streamed for free for two months on BBC iPlayer as part Culture In Quarantine, the BBC’s arts and culture service to “keep the arts alive in people’s homes”. A screening on BBC 4 in May will be confirmed at a later date.

Billed as a big, bawdy tangle of theatrical joy and pain, Wise Children is a celebration of show business, family, forgiveness and hope as Nora and Dora Chance, twin chorus girls born and bred south of the river, celebrate their 70th birthday in Brixton.

Wise Children artistic director Emma Rice

Across the river in Chelsea, their father and greatest actor of his generation, Melchior Hazard, turns 100, on the same day. As does his twin brother Peregrine. If, in fact, he is still alive. And if, in truth, Melchior is their real father after all.

“When I set up Wise Children, I knew I would open with an adaptation of Wise Children after calling the company that name, presenting Angela Carter’s open love letter to theatre in all its aspects, its power and glories,” said Rice.

“I was a great fan of Angela Carter in my 20s. She has had a magical impact on people’s lives; she’s breath-taking in allowing the unimaginable to happen, so we fit together well!”

To create her adaptation, Rice read Carter’s novel, then wrote down the story or “what I remember of it”, she said. “I then started working on it with the actors, using their collective imaginations, so that they can pass on their own experiences in theatre.”

Rice has a track record for picking unconventional casts, typically so for Wise Children. “The actors I’m drawn to over and over again, and the way I tell stories, reflect how I always like to open up to diversity, expanding on my own experiences of humanity, especially in these polarised times, by looking at people who have had different experiences to your own,” she reasoned.

Against the 2019 backdrop of so much drabness, division, enmity and lost hope, Rice was determined to champion showbusiness, family, forgiveness and hope. “They represent a lot of my life,” she said. “When I talk of family, I mean not only blood family, but how we connect as humans.”

Emma Rice’s company Wise Children in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers at York Theatre Royal last September

Now, Rice is delighted that Wise Children is being streamed from this week on BBC iPlayer amid the Coronavirus lockdown. “I dreamt about adapting Angela Carter’s Wise Children for years before it became a reality, and, when I finally did make it, it was the first piece I made for my new company,” she says.

“It’s a show I carry deep in my heart; a love letter to theatre, to survival, to family and family of choice. When The Space commissioned us to film it for the BBC, I almost burst with pride!

“I delight in the fact that we now get to share this glorious story with so many others, and hope that the fun, truth, love and generosity poured into it will find its way into sitting rooms across the country.”

Reflecting on Wise Children being part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine programming, Rice says: “What feels even more perfect is that we’re releasing it now. Today, more than ever, we need joy, resilience, hope and love of life, which runs through the veins of Wise Children. As Nora and Dora Chance tell us: ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’. Never has this been more true. We hope you enjoy.”

Last September, Rice and Wise Children returned to York Theatre Royal for a second co-production, Enid Blyton’s “original post-war Girl Power story, the naughty, nostalgic and perfect for now” Malory Towers: her “happy Lord Of The Flies”, as Rice called it.

Wise Children and the Theatre Royal are to complete a hattrick of collaborations in 2021, this time in tandem with the National Theatre for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

The butterfly effect: Emma Rice’s Wise Children company in Angela Carter’s Wise Children

Charles Hutchinson’s review of Wise Children at York Theatre Royal, March 2019. Copyright of The Press, York.

IMAGINE a Victorian vaudeville troupe or a circus travelling across Europe picking up performers, musicians, speciality acts, en route.

It would look not unlike Emma Rice’s new Wise Children company, set up since she left the artistic directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe and more in keeping with her 20 years leading Cornish company Kneehigh.

Do not take it the wrong way when I say Rice’s Wise Children are a modern-day freak show, not in the overt manner of the Circus of Horrors, but in how Rice celebrates, liberates and embraces beauty in all forms: a message for this age of Brexit intolerance for “outsiders” and fashion magazine photo-shopped “perfection”.

Vicki Mortimer’s design echoes circus in its lighting, while the set is dominated by a caravan, again recalling travelling troupes in Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s last novel: a “celebration of showbusiness, family, forgiveness and hope” that receives a big, bold, bouncy, exuberant, darkly imaginative, saucy interpretation.

Opening on the 75th birthday of The Lucky Chances, Brixton showgirl twins Nora and Dora Chance, Rice’s hyper-production jumps around in time to tell their life story.

On the way she employs puppetry; glorious live music; theatrical in-jokes; old Bob Monkhouse and Max Miller gags; Shakespeare quotes; much mischief making, scabrous scandal and mistaken identities; men playing women, women playing men, and multiple versions of the same character at different ages.

Fabulous show, fabulous performers, fabulous butterflies too.

REVIEW: Kneehigh’s Ubu! The Sing Along Satire. Who knew politics could be this much fun?

Riotous: Ubu (Katy Owen) and Mrs Ubu (Mike Shepherd) in Ubu! The Sing Along Satire

REVIEW: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, tonight at 7.30pm. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk

ALEX, the woodsman-bearded drama teacher from York, won’t forget his afternoon visit to Leeds Playhouse, thrashed by a Leeds boy in a daft party game in Kneehigh’s promenade musical.

He loved it! We loved it! You’ll love it! Yet again, Cornwall’s Kneehigh send you home dizzy and delirious with the joys and jolts, the thrilling rock’n’rollercoaster ride, of theatre that aptly comes with an exclamation mark in its show title.

Ubu! A Sing Along Satire has politics, a big flushing loo, cheers and boos, inflatable animals, songs, more politics, more songs, competitive audience participation and a giant bear with poor vision in a chaotic, kinetic, karaoke cabaret circus of derailed life under a deranged dictator.

First, house lights up, Delycia Belgrave and the soul house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats set the boisterous mood from up on high with party anthems.

Enter our convivial, dry-witted host in vest, tie and striped trousers, Jeremy Wardle (Niall Ashdown), commenting on the state of the British nation as he introduces the land of Lovelyville and the campaign trail of sleek, sloganeering President Nick Dallas (Dom Coyote), his woke daughter Bobbi (Kyla Goodey) and their Russian security boss Captain Shittabrique (Adam Sopp). Shitt-a-brique. Geddit. There are plenty more risqué gags like that to follow.

Where’s Ubu? Here’s Ubu! Tiny yet hugely impactful Katy Owen’s unhinged, petulant, crude and cruel soon-to-be-dictator Ubu. Potty mouthed, bespectacled, dreadlocked, Welsh voiced, and in the words of Kneehigh: “impossibly greedy, unstoppably rude, inexorably daft and hell-bent on making the country great again! Sound familiar?”

Familiar, yes, but told so gleefully afresh, as Alfred Jarry’s famously riot-inducing shot of anarchy from 1896 Paris kicks up a song and dance in the manipulative era of Trump, Johnson and Putin.

Conceived by writer Carl Grose, his co-director Mike Shepherd (the show’s ribald, preening Mrs Ubu) and musical director Charles Hazlewood, Ubu! is a punk-spirited, twisted vaudeville study of power, protest and populism that could not be better timed.

Boos for Katie Hopkins, Boris and Trump; Britney’s Toxic, The Carpenters’ Close To You and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk re-invented so joyfully; wonderful performances all round, audience included; crazily energetic choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves and a constantly busy, circular rostrum set by Michael Vale all make for another Kneehigh knees-up high.

Cause a riot, if needs must, to secure a ticket for this petty, power-mad protagonist’s panto of pandemonium.

Kneehigh mount Leeds Playhouse protest with Ubu party games and singalongs

Kneehigh’s Ubu!: party and protest rolled into one riotous show . Picture: Steve Tanner

ALFRED Jarry’s ground-breaking political parable Ubu Roi caused riots when first staged in Paris in 1896. Now, Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire promises an equally riotous night out at Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.

Conceived by Carl Grose, Charles Hazlewood and Mike Shepherd, it smashes together Jarry’s gleefully rude and deliberately childish script with a crowd-pleasing singalong, party games, inflatable animals and contemporary political satire.   

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is a punk-spirited, comedic study of power, protest and populism. “And what better form of popular culture to demonstrate this than mass karaoke?”, ask the Cornish company.

The show is led by Katy Owen’s tiny, tyrannical Pa Ubu and Mike Shepherd’s pouting, preening Ma Ubu, alongside the ever-versatile Kneehigh ensemble: a six-strong cast and the band The Sweaty Bureaucrats.  

Arranged by Hazlewood, the selection of songs is inventive and cannily chosen, ranging from Britney Spears’ Toxic and Edwin Starr’s War to Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk and The Carpenters’ Close To You, as a festival atmosphere builds.

Writer and co-director Carl Grose explains how Ubu! came to fruition and why the petty protagonist still resonates with modern audiences. “When Alfred Jarry’s play received its premiere at the Théâtre de l’OEuvre in Paris on December 10 1896, there was, so the story goes, a full-on riot,” he says.

Winging it: Kneehigh’s singalong Ubu!. Picture: Steve Tanner

“Audiences and critics alike were confronted with sights and sounds of such outrageousness that pandemonium broke out and the production was shut down after only two performances.”

Grose continues: “Like all great artists, Alfred Jarry was a disrupter, and Ubu was his weapon of mass disruption. A personification of chaos, a lord of misrule, a howling, hysterical metaphor for greed, lies and corruption.

“The main character was designed to be both laughed at and despised, and that’s still the case. He is here to gather us together as his prisoners, his acolytes, his victims – or his potential usurpers.

“He is a reminder that those in power will do their damnedest to make their reality our normality. It’s up to us to collectively remember that there’s nothing normal about Ubu and his ilk.”

Ubu’s behaviour beggars belief, concludes Grose. “He is cruel, nonsensical, cowardly, aggressive and beyond vile in his actions,” he says. “Career mad, he looks totally ridiculous, puts money over humanity in a heartbeat and has a vocabulary that leaves a lot to be desired. What an absurd creation, eh?”

Prepare for a Kneehigh antidote to a divided world that makes a stand against divisiveness and brings audiences together through the joyful act of singing

Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, February 4 to 8. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.