Blue Beard

Emma Rice
Wise Children, Birmingham Rep, HOME Manchester, Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

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Stephanie Hockley, Robyn Sinclair, Katy Owen, and Mirabelle Gremaud Credit: Steve Tanner
Stephanie Hockley, Robyn Sinclair, and Patrycja Kujawska Credit: Steve Tanner
Patrycja Kujawska and Tristan Sturrock Credit: Steve Tanner

Emma Rice’s Wise Children returns to the York Theatre Royal with a typically twisted adaptation, this time adding a powerfully timely punch. Based on the French folk tale, which was best known to me from Angela Carter’s version, The Bloody Chamber, this is the grim fable of a serial wife murderer, the eponymous Blue Beard.

Rice’s sprightly version first lures us into a fantastical world, where a convent of sisters in tartan smocks and sunglasses run through the parish notices, each a piece of unpredictable comic absurdism in the capable hands of the fantastic Katy Owen. The backdrop (design by Vicki Mortimer) is a simple set of scaffolding, adding further frames to the proscenium of the Theatre Royal. A curtain imprinted with a cosmic starscape is used to conceal or reveal the further depths of the stage-within-a-stage.

Owen, as the Mother Superior, bellows and struts her way through the role as an MC / narrator figure. She’s also sporting a blue beard of her own, which she wears as "a memory, a promise, and a warning". Gradually, the world of the play becomes clearer—or the worlds, rather, as within the frame of the convent, two tales are told, and eventually intertwine. One is a typically visually inventive take on the Bluebeard story, while the other emerges more piecemeal, initiated by the arrival of a ‘lost brother’, Adam Mirsky. Prompted by the Mother Superior, he starts to tell the story of his sister, for whom he’s searching.

These two stories run in intriguing parallel, with at times the action of a simple crossing of the stage space providing fascinating images and suggesting links between the tales that only fully cohere at the end of the evening. Doorways and cabinets on castors are used imaginatively, combining with Malcolm Rippeth’s striking lighting design to create textured and imaginative depths to the settings.

The cast of seven (plus one off-stage musician) multirole excellently and, as is typical of Wise Children, each sings beautifully, plays at least one instrument and showcases a range of other talents. This results in a musical, lyrical, boisterous and confident show, in full control of its tone and gradually teasing out its stories. Mirabelle Gremaud performs feats of acrobatics and contortion as well as playing the harp, an instrument which adds beautiful texture alongside acoustic guitar, bass, and violin (the latter magnificently played by Patrycja Kujawska). Stephanie Hockley plays piano with feeling, and contributes soaring harmonies to the ensemble’s pitch-perfect singing. Robyn Sinclair joins Hockley and Kujawska in fun song and dance numbers, as well as plumbing deeper emotions as ‘Lucky’, the young woman who falls under Blue Beard’s spell.

There is a great deal of music to the piece, which is a joy. We also witness some classic magic routines as performed by Tristan Sturrock in his role as Blue Beard. While these tend to rely on some fairly well-known tricks and are as such a little underpowered, he sells them with conviction, and his magnetism is crucial to the role.

While Owen’s mastery of both comic and darker, stranger tones provides the spine of the show, this is nonetheless an ensemble piece, with such a sense of complicity and collaboration between the cast members it would be hard not to get wrapped up in it. There is a slight sense, perhaps, that the stories might have been told a little more efficiently—towards the end of the first half, there are a few musical numbers which contribute to a feeling that we’re treading water in advance of the climactic interval moment. But the atmospheres conjured and the confidence of the storytelling otherwise make it worth it.

There is also a powerful message behind the piece, effectively conveyed. To say too much more would rob it of some of its value, but this felt like a painfully timely note to sound, given some of the news emerging on the day I saw the piece. Are Wise Children ‘growing up’, as Emma Rice suggests in her note? They’re still childishly, gloriously playful. But there is also wisdom to them—and, here, a new note: anger.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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