Review of The House with Chicken Legs at HOME, Manchester.
“The best parties are where all the guests are dead!” proclaims Marinka’s grandmother Baba – and with all the music, dancing, home-cooked food, and free-flowing drink, they certainly look like a good night out.
Except Baba is a Yaga, a Guardian of The Gate between this world and the next, so there’s only one way to exit her knees-ups. After an evening of happy memories and kind words, she guides the recently deceased on their way “to the stars”.
Any potential gatecrashers are kept at bay by the fence of human bones that Marinka maintains around Baba’s house, to ensure the living and the dead remain separate.
As if that Yaga stuff wasn’t incredible enough, Marinka’s home is, as the title suggests, free-ranging – regularly heading off to the edges of civilisation without so much as a by-your-leave. And did I mention her friend? The chatty jackdaw?
Now if at this point you are thinking WTAF, then you’ve obviously not read Sophie Anderson’s book The House with Chicken Legs before. Me neither! But the good news is that no prior homework is needed to enjoy Les Enfants Terribles’ lively new stage adaptation.
Rather aptly, Jasmine Swan’s set and Samuel Wyer’s costumes are to die for – all rich colours, thoughtful detail, and a feast for the eyes. When Baba’s house swings wide to reveal its interior, it’s a wonderful mix of the invitingly homely and unsettlingly macabre. Jack the talkative bird is skillfully evoked by Matthew Burns courtesy of Wyer’s subtly bejewelled puppet, with its expressive movements upfront and fluttering fan of feathers behind.
While all this adds up to a world of wonder for audiences, teenager Marinka feels trapped by it – and that inner conflict is the show’s main driver. With her destiny to succeed her grandmother and become a Yaga seemingly already mapped out – she is increasingly disenchanted with their nomadic lifestyle, and reluctant to embrace a role immersed in a world of death.
Stylistically, the show travels as widely as a restless house on legs. Drawing on the Slavic traditions of the original Yaga tales, the first half boasts borsch, balalaika, and a bossy babushka. A more diverse perspective on the many Guardians of the Gates permeates the second half with a trip to New Orleans, a side order of Day of the Dead celebrations, and some brassy, soulful sounds.
Ranging from stomping party tunes to touchingly awkward teenage duets, the show’s music is a joy – gaining in impact as the story progresses. Taking turns to sing, dance and play instruments, the cast of six are the production’s core strength – effortlessly switching between a multitude of character roles, and even helping to manoeuvre the set around. It’s a pleasure to experience a production where every performer gets a chance to really shine.
Eve De Leon Allen is an engaging and pleasingly complex lead, bringing the audience along with them on Marinka’s journey of self-discovery. There’s a (grand) mother-clucking barn-storming performance from Lisa Howard, who invests the no-nonsense Baba with hearty comedic warmth.
As the other Yaga who also guides Marinka through life, Pérola Congo is all cool-headed advice and worldly-wise sophistication. While David Fallon’s gauche but good-natured young football fan Ben entertainingly negotiates the gap between our world and the “weird” one that Marinka inhabits.
At a few feathers short of three hours in length, the show would benefit from a bit of plucking – and for me, a couple of elements of the production don’t gel as well as they should. Compared to the delights centre-stage, the video design feels flat and lacklustre – and at key points it fails to rise to the occasion. More frustratingly, Jackdaw aside, some of the delicate storytelling using Wyer’s small and beautifully crafted puppets risks getting lost on that big stage.
Admirably, in among all the fun, Les Enfants Terribles manage to convey some reassuring messages – about family, coping with death, finding your own way in the world, and even caring for the planet – without a moment of it feeling heavy-handed or over-worked.
There’s grit in there, but also a determination to have a good time. When the music kicks in, someone cracks a deliberately bad joke, or a comforting arm is extended, it’s difficult not to lose yourself in the warmth of it all. As if taking its cue from Baba’s house parties, the show celebrates life, and sends you out through the theatre doors on a high.
Performance seen on 31 March 2022.
The House with Chicken Legs runs from 29 March to 23 April 2022 at HOME, Manchester.
Images by Andrew AB Photography