The House with Chicken Legs

Reviewer's rating

Never having come across the novel, The House with Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson, I was a little adrift at the start of the evening but also very aware that the audience, disproportionately made up of children form about age 8 or 9 and lots of teenagers, was completely very excited from the start and clearly captivated throughout. I think most of them, including the accompanying parents, must have read the book and were already comfortable with the material.

The company Les Enfants Terribles has adapted this novel with vivid theatrical imagination and energy and now I feel that I must read the book. The show is visually inventive, cleverly designed by Jasmine Swan and excitingly theatrical in its presentation throughout. Using song, dance, puppetry (designed by Samuel Wyer who designed the costumes as well) and videography (by Nina Dunn) to tell a folk-tale style story, the play is increasingly gripping as it develops and as various revelations and twists occur.

The story is a contemporary riff on the Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga, an ogre in some versions and the mythical guardian of the gates into the next world. The play is a contemplation on life and death. Marinka (Eva de Leon Allen) lives with their Yaga grandmother (a heartfelt performance from Lisa Howard) whose job is to guide dead souls through the doorway into the next world, a world of stars and reintegration with the universe. Marinka, who is an adolescent does not want to follow their destiny as the next Yaga. Marinka is lonely, wants friends, wants a normal life and to live in a community. But the house gets up on its chicken legs and moves two or three times a year, and Marinka rebels against this nomadic existence, especially after meeting the boy, Ben (played sweetly by Michael Barker), and beginning to experience friendship. Kind yet rebellious, Marinka is sometimes very selfish and self-willed and also misguidedly caring in the case of trying to help Nina, played by Elouise Warboys. The story has a picaresque quality, moving through fantastical and sometimes glorious adventures. Marinka rebels, loses Grandmother Yaga when the Yaga goes through the portal, tries to bring back grandmother, becomes involved with other Yagas. There is a ball of many of the houses with chicken legs, and Marinka even floats among the galaxies of the universe.

At the start of Act Two it turns out that there is a whole world of Baba Yagas and the balance of the show shifts decidedly with the appearance of Stephanie Levi-John as the Yaga from New Orleans. By the end of the evening, this new Yaga and Eve de Leon Allen as Marinka share the honours of being at the centre of everything. Eve de Leon Allen handles the confusion, loneliness, curiosity and growth of Marinka with charm and commitment; and Stephanie Levi-John as the New Orleans Baba Yaga is the embodiment of a powerhouse West End musicals star who knows how to belt out a song. Funny, brassy and moving, she had total command of the audience every second she was on the stage.

The Les Enfants Terribles Company has created a production that will enthral younger people and fans of the book. The co-directors James Seager and Oliver Lansley understand this very Brechtian tale and the adaptation by Lansley is excellent. I thought the energy and commitment of the entire cast, the musicians, and clearly all the creatives was exemplary. Dan Willis was especially memorable as the Jackdaw. If you’ve read the book I think you will find this adaptation an extremely enjoyable way of spending an evening in the theatre.