REVIEW: Wise Children in Emma Rice’s Blue Beard at York Theatre Royal *****

Tristan Sturrock’s Blue Beard versus Katy Owen’s Mother Superior in Wise Children’s Blue Beard

PRESS night for Wise Children’s Blue Beard coincided with Thursday’s release of the findings of Lady Elish Angiolini’s inquiry into the murder of York-born Sarah Everard by Met Police officer Wayne Couzens.

That murder was among the triggers for Wise Children writer-director Emma Rice deciding to write her version of the fairy tale Blue Beard, a gruesome tale of controlling women that she had previously avoided and never liked, “not wanting to add to the number of dead women scattered throughout our literature and media”.

Haunted by “the regular and painful chime of murdered woman in the news”, Rice woke one morning with the story knocking powerfully at her dreams. She duly wrote what she calls a wonder tale of vibrant, flawed, joyful living women, working together to turn the tables on the violent aggressor, “taking down the ones who threaten us” in a revenge story of female friendship, intellect and survival that is both defiant and hopeful.

The review to this point is quoting in depth from Rice’s interview, outlining her need, brought on by anger, to use her craft, platform and experience to make a small difference. Her motive was not to understand or excuse Blue Beard but to breathe life into the women he sought to control, celebrating them in “all their wild and surprising glory”, saying “enough is enough; we will not be afraid anymore.”

Emma Rice: The snap, crackle and pop of modern theatre

“It certainly won’t be boring,” she promised. Boring? Has any Emma Rice production, whether for the pioneering Kneehigh Theatre or now Wise Children, ever been boring, whether Brief Encounter, Malory Towers or Wuthering Heights?!

Blue Beard, her fifth supernova of a Wise Children show, is everything modern theatre should be: intelligent, topical, provocative, surprising; full of music, politics, “tender truths”, mirror balls and dazzling costumery; comedy as much as tragedy; actors as skilled at musicianship as acting and dancing to boot; embracing the Greek, Shakespearean, cabaret, kitchen sink and multi-media ages of theatre.

Seamless scene changing too by designer Vicki Mortimer, with a combination of furniture on wheels, doors centre stage, and curtains being closed and opened to conceal and reveal as if by magic. That’s how to stage a show. Then add Rice’s Blue Beard (Tristan Sturrock) now being a magician. Cue knife-throwing with a real point to it.

Emma Rice makes audacious theatre, full of mischievous imagination and stylish innovation in her vow to “entertain, move and transport”. She does so with a bravura flourish that means broad comedy and terror, a potty-mouthed nun and a filmic slow-motion climactic fight, a dig at Jamie Oliver cookbooks and CCTV film footage of the lead-up to a murder can collide and elide in one play, replete with gutteral physicality and grace.

Welcome to the Convent of the Fearful, the F****d and the Furious, where the nuns all wear shades and the terrific Katy Owen’s blue-bearded Mother Superior rules with waspish wit, fearless frankness, frightening zeal and a shrill referee’s whistle.

Revenger’s tragicomedy: Patrycja Kujawska’s Treasure wreaks vengeance on Tristan Sturrock’s Blue Beard in Wise Children’s Blue Beard

Into Rice’s overlapping stories are woven the young, modern-day Adam Mirsky’s Lost Brother and Mirabelle Grimaud’s guitar-playing Lost Sister, and the timeless triumvirate of sisters Lucky (Robyn Sinclair), Trouble (Stephanie Hockley) and their mother, Treasure (Patrycja Kujawska), reminiscent of the Witches in Macbeth.  Enter Blue Beard, whom Trouble will marry – and if he’s looking for Trouble, he’s in the right place, as he meets his match. 

All the while, be beguiled by the playing of Stu Barker’s Sister Susie of the Dulcimer and the superb movement direction and choreography of Etta Murfitt.

In the words of Rice: “Using music, dance, and storytelling, I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It’s a blockbusting rollercoaster!”

Couldn’t put it better! Rice’s Blue Beard is bloody funny, but shocking; violent, furious, dark yet enlightening; as romantic and joyful as it is fearful; empowering in its feminism, pulling reality from fantasy, haunting yet hopeful at the last. Remarkable, breathtaking theatre for today yet rooted in the ages, demanding a better tomorrow. You MUST see Blue Beard. It’s certainly not boring, Emma.

Wise Children presents Blue Beard at York Theatre Royal until March 9, except Sunday and Monday. Performances: 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 7.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or