Written by Sophie Anderson
Adapted by Oliver Lansley
Directed by Oliver Lansley and James Seager
Co-production HOME and Les Enfants Terribles
HOME excels at being a welcoming venue for vibrant, colourful and riotous productions such as the Emma Rice’s Wise Children and The Tiger Lillies Corrido de la Sangre. This brand new collaboration with Les Enfants Terribles is no exception. This lively adaptation of the hugely successful children’s book by Sophie Anderson is brimming with energetic performances, Eastern European folklore, music, puppetry and animation. Its easy to see why The House with Chicken Legs was such a great choice to showcase the very varied talents of Les Enfants Terrible as they celebrate 20 years as a successful company.
The House with Chicken Legs tells a tale steeped in Eastern European folklore as the audience are invited into the netherworld of this house of bones which is home to Baba Yaga and her granddaughter Marinka. They play host to nightly parties for the dead before guiding souls through the gate to the afterlife and safely on their journey back to the stars. Baba Yaga relishes her role as gatekeeper unlike 12 year old Marinka who wistfully dreams of a life among the living. The fantastical house moves often and careers around the world on its chicken legs so Marinka is quite literally a displaced child. Although in development from before the pandemic this story is particularly relevant in our current political times. The folk music and the rustic borscht and kvass that nourish the living and the dead have much of their roots in Ukraine. Witnessing Marinka in this house that literally moves without warning is a potent reflection on what it is to be a refugee child who has witnessed death all around her.
This production is brimming over with passion and energy. Like the house itself it moves constantly between quiet, beautiful moments of reflective song or charming storytelling through puppets crafted from wood and bones through to riotous parties for the dead and dreamy, kaleidoscopic animation sequences. The house is sometimes homespun cosy for Baba Yaga or jazzy and sassy for the Yaga Tatiana in New Orleans while in other instances it literally grows legs to be on the move. Intimate moments with ingenue Marinka can be replaced by big song numbers with the whole cast resplendent in Yaga house costumes from across the world that lead to bizarre sequences that feel like you are suddenly watching some bonkers Eastern European entry for Eurovision!!
There is enough content here to have something for everyone. The set design by Jasmine Swan is suitably fantastical and glorious, as is the lighting design and fabulous costumes. The musicians are multi talented and a pleasure to listen to. The performances are strong and well fleshed out. Eve de Leon Allen is perfectly cast as Marinka and has a beautiful tone to their singing voice. Lisa Howard and Pérola Conga excel as Baba Yaga and Baba Tatiana, with the latter giving a real powerhouse performance as a sexy, sultry ancient Yaga full of wisdom and panache. Matthew Burns brings magic with a simple puppet and a glistening fan that brings Jackdaw to life for both adults and children. There really is a lot to enjoy and admire in this production however there are points where the pace gets bogged down in repetitive narrative and this clever show loses its tautness. The result is overly long and coming in at just under 3 hours with the interval may be more than some younger kids will comfortably appreciate.
The House with Chicken Legs has definitely got big enough Legs to take itself out on tour. This is a production that celebrates being different and has a strong message of inclusion. It is both magical and macabre but with enough heart at its core to tell us about death and loss in a way that may bring comfort and reassurance to children and adults alike as we navigate our own stories of what it is to live our lives and mourn our dead.