Writer: Sophie Anderson
Adaptor: Sophie Anderson
Music and Lyrics: Alexander Wolfe and Oliver Lansley
Directors: Oliver Lansley and James Seager
Myths and legends are rarely consistent but those concerning Baba Yaga vary widely. She is reported to be a witch who eats her victims, maybe one of three sisters who all have the same name or may simply be a midwife. One consistent feature of the legends is that she lives in a house with chicken legs.
In Sophie Anderson’s The House with Chicken Legs (adapted for the stage by Oliver Lansley) Baba(Lisa Howard) is a Psychopomp, guiding newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife through a mystical gateway. The story is told from the viewpoint of Baba’s granddaughter, 12-year-old Marinka (Eve De Leon Allen), who does not want to fulfil her destiny and become a gateway guardian – she simply wants to make friends. This is hard to achieve as the house with chicken legs tends to move without warning and does not approve of her attitude. But one day a football bounces into Marinka’s garden setting off a sequence of events that not only allows her to encounter potential friends but also to learn her origins and compel her to face unwanted responsibilities.
To answer the obvious question: yes, Samuel Wyer’s eccentric but wonderful puppet designs really do create a house walking on chicken legs. The effect is delivered after a teasing suggestion that the walking house might be simulated by thunderous percussion and screen projections. The effect is visually odd but this accords with the warm atmosphere created by directors Oliver Lansley and James Seager which celebrates diversity and the richness of life. A gathering of walking houses is played for laughs complete with awful puns about getting the house bands back together and being housebound.
The show is intended for anyone aged nine years and older and the early start is family-friendly although the three-hour running time may stretch the patience of younger children. The House with Chicken Legs addresses complex themes of identity, the power of stories, coming to terms with death and facing grown-up responsibilities and it is impressive that, while Lansley’s adaptation is accessible to all, it does not condescend or talk down to the intended audience.
As is common in folk tales the play uses music and puppets in the process of telling the story. The music by Alexander Wolfe is surprisingly varied. The gypsy influence is an obvious choice, but the rich score runs through gentle Hushabye Mountain style lullabies to raucous swing/scat. The puppets vary from the sophisticated Jackdaw to basic marionettes manipulated by hand to show the characters swimming or travelling through the afterlife.
The off-centre reality inhabited by the characters is built convincingly and with imaginative style. The house with chicken legs is surrounded by fencing constructed out of human bones and the newly dead communicate by way of music rather than words. The guardians of the gateway have a symbiotic relationship with their houses and the latter have distinctive personalities conveyed by the cast either musically or visually.
The one area in which the play deviates from the legends is in the characterisation of Baba Yaga. ‘Baba’ is an honorific given to the gateway guardians each of whom has a different personality. Marinka’s grandmother is played by Lisa Howard as a slightly tipsy landlady who does not allow her responsibilities to get in the way of having a strong drink and a singsong with guests. She also gets to deliver a neat dig at Disney’s Frozen. Pérola Congo’s self-regarding Yaga is a sexy songstress a million miles away from the concept of a flesh-eating witch.
Eve De Leon Allen’s performance provides a satisfyingly complex heroine; one capable of growing as a result of Marinka’s experiences. Their Marinka is a convincingly awkward pre-teen; blurting out that, although her house is surrounded by bones, she is not a serial killer. The grudging affection between Marinka and her grandmother is beautifully caught in deep sighs and forced smiles and although Marinka is wilful, she has the courage to face up to the consequences of her actions.
Jasmine Swan’s gorgeous set designs and Samuel Wyer’s costumes steal the show. From the apparently ramshackle interiors of the Baba houses to the white skull and bones border on Marinka’s black skirt the designs are ravishing and contribute greatly to the otherworldly atmosphere of the play.
Les Enfants Terribles’ adaptation is respectful to both the source material and the audience. It examines demanding themes in an arresting and highly entertaining manner and features delightful characters and a wonderful atmosphere. It is a show that has legs and deserves to run.
Runs Until 23 April 2022