The Chicken Thigh House – HOME, Manchester
Screenwriter: Sophie Anderson
Adapter: 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 considerably. She is reported to be a witch who eats her victims, possibly one of three sisters who all have the same name or possibly just a midwife. A constant feature of the legends is that she lives in a house with chicken legs.
At 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 perspective of Baba’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Marinka (Eve De Leon Allen), who doesn’t want to fulfill her destiny and become a gatekeeper – she just wants to make friends. This is hard to pull off as the chicken leg house tends to move without warning and doesn’t approve of her attitude. But one day, a soccer ball bounces in Marinka’s garden, setting off a sequence of events that not only allows her to meet potential friends, but also learns about her origins and compels her to face unwanted responsibilities.
To answer the obvious question: yes, Samuel Wyer’s quirky but wonderful puppet designs really do create a house walking on chicken legs. The effect is produced after a teasing suggestion that the traveling house could be simulated by thunderous percussion and screen projections. The effect is visually odd but it fits with the warm atmosphere created by directors Oliver Lansley and James Seager which celebrates the diversity and richness of life. A gathering of traveling houses is played for laughs with gruesome puns about getting the house bands together and being housebound.
The show is aimed at anyone aged nine and over and the early start is family-friendly, although the three-hour runtime can test the patience of young children. The house with chicken thighs tackles complex themes of identity, the power of stories, coming to terms with death and adult responsibilities and it’s impressive that, while Lansley’s adaptation is accessible to everyone, it doesn’t condescend or not demean the intended audience.
As is common in folk tales, the play uses music and puppets to tell the story. Alexander Wolfe’s music is surprisingly varied. The gypsy influence is an obvious choice, but the rich score goes through soft Hushabye Mountain raucous/scat swing style lullabies. The puppets vary from sophisticated jackdaws to basic hand-manipulated puppets to show the characters swimming or traveling to the afterlife.
The off-center reality inhabited by the characters is constructed convincingly and with imaginative style. The Chicken Leg House is surrounded by a fence constructed from human bones, and the newly dead communicate through music rather than words. The Gateway Guardians have a symbiotic relationship with their Houses, and the Houses have distinct personalities conveyed by the cast, whether musically or visually.
The only area where the play deviates from the legends is in the characterization of Baba Yaga. “Baba” is an honorary title given to gateway keepers, each with a different personality. Marinka’s grandmother is played by Lisa Howard as a slightly drunk landlord who doesn’t allow her responsibilities to keep her from having a strong drink and singing along with guests. She also gets to deliver a neat dig at Disney Frozen. Self-respecting Yaga from Pérola Congo is a sexy singer a million miles from the concept of a flesh-eating witch.
Eve De Leon Allen’s performance provides a satisfyingly complex heroine; able to grow through Marinka’s experiences. Their Marinka is a convincing and clumsy preteen; blurting out that, although her house is surrounded by bones, she is not a serial killer. The reluctant affection between Marinka and her grandmother is beautifully captured in deep sighs and forced smiles and although Marinka is strong-willed, she has the courage to face the consequences of her actions.
Stunning sets by Jasmine Swan and costumes by Samuel Wyer steal the show. From the seemingly dilapidated interiors of Baba’s houses to the white skull and bone trim on Marinka’s black skirt, the designs are lovely and contribute greatly to the otherworldly feel of the room.
The adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles is respectful of both the source and the audience. It examines challenging themes in a gripping and highly entertaining way and features charming characters and a wonderful atmosphere. It’s a show that has legs and is worth running for.
Until April 23, 2022