REVIEW: THE HOUSE WITH CHICKEN LEGS @ THEATRE ROYAL PLYMOUTH
🎭 Islander: A New Musical
📍 The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Royal Parade, Plymouth, Devon, PL1 2TR
🗓 Wednesday 4th October 2023
Last night I was back at Theatre Royal Plymouth for The House with Chicken Legs which is being presented by Les Enfants Terrible in collaboration with HOME Manchester and is on a tour of the UK. The story is based on the novel by Sophie Anderson and has been adapted for the stage by Oliver Lansley.
We entered the auditorium to the gentle sound of Italian style music with the set on show. Just a house, some weird bushes of bones and a few candles! As someone who is not familiar with the novel I was intrigued by this and was filled with wonder for what was to come.
The action begins while the house lights are still up and as they fade we meet Marinka, the protagonist in the story. Portrayed by Eve De Leon Allen, Marinka introduces herself to the audience. We learn that she is a 12 year old girl who finds it difficult to make and keep friends. This is mainly due to the fact that her house has chicken legs and often, in the middle of the night, will get up and will walk thousands of miles to a new location!
Allen gave a magnetic performance throughout. They easily portrayed the youthful innocence of their character and gave great depth and feeling to the role. As the central character, Allen was the only cast member to play only one part and they did so with utter believability.
Marinka lives with her grandmother who she refers to as Baba and Baba is a Yaga. A Yaga is essentially a guardian of the gateway between life and death and their job is to help the dead on their journey to the stars. Each night Baba hosts a ceremony where she welcomes the dead to her house and guides them through the gateway. The dead are portrayed with masks and have what can only be described as a joyful eeriness about them!
Baba, played by Lisa Howard, is the comic relief in the story. At times she almost becomes a stand-up comedian! She gives a strong performance and convincingly portrays the matriarchal strength of Baba.
I found the story surprisingly dark. Much darker than expected given the age of the audience that the show attracts. However the way that the show is put together deals with the issues throughout sensitively and in an incredibly engaging way which is to be applauded.
One of the gloriously wondrous things about this production was the use of puppetry. The character of Jackdaw was portrayed using puppetry by Dan Willis, but there were times when the entire company came together to work the puppets to tell stories. Stories such as how Marinka’s parents met and a beach scene were portrayed with puppets which gave some beautifully serene moments.
Throughout the story Marinka meets some interesting characters both in the land of the living, and passing through. One of these is Ben, who is in the land of the living and becomes a neighbour when the house positions itself near his. Ben, like Marinka, is a bit of a social outcast and they form an instant friendship bond. Exceptionally portrayed by Michael Barker, Ben and Marinka sing We Could Be The Odd Two Out Together which is a cutely sweet song which solidifies their friendship.
Marinka also meets Nina, played by Eloise Warboys. Nina needs to pass through the gate but is unaware she is dead and Marinka decides to keeps her back for a while, until she starts to fade. She is too weak to go through the gate alone and Baba sacrifices herself to give Nina the energy to pass through is an epic, almost cinematic finale to act 1.
At 90 minutes, I felt that act 1 was too long and would benefit from maybe losing 10 minutes. It’s difficult because where the show breaks feels like the natural place for an interval, but it makes act 1 almost twice as long as act 2. There were times when a song was performed where I felt there didn’t necessarily need to be one. Not that the production is littered with songs. Also I felt a lot of the songs were far too long and as most of them were very middle of the road, they were in danger of becoming tedious.
As act 2 begins we meet another Yaga who helps Marinka transition into a keeper of the gate and helps her comes to terms with the loss of Baba and also the revelation about her life she discovers. Yaga Tatiana is portrayed by Stephanie Levi-John who gives an energetic performance. Her song Yaga Tales is a real gear change from the previous songs and was probably my favourite of the whole show. Levi-John had an incredible singing voice and gave great characterisation, replacing the lost humour of Baba.
The entire company in this piece are absolutely sensational. Not only do they portray a myriad of characters with utter precision and believability but they also play a huge selection of instruments including saxophone, violin, accordion, guitar, drums, harmonica, bass guitar and glockenspiel! In some productions that feature actor-musicians, I feel that something is lost but this production makes it work with utter brilliance.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The House with Chicken Legs. It was a wonderful story beautifully told by fantastic actors. The sets were good and well thought out and I particularly liked the use of the projections on the back screen. Part of the story was told exclusively on the screen in one of the standout moments of the show.
This being said, as a technical theatre nerd there were some failings in my opinion. Alongside the fantastic live music being performed in stage there was some music on track which didn’t work for me. The levels of the music were terrible throughout which meant that during most of the songs I struggled significantly to hear the lyrics being sung. This made me severely disengaged at times especially, as stated earlier, some of the songs were quite long. The worst example was during a song performed by a group of Yalla’s in act 2. The lyrics were also very fast in this song and I genuinely had no idea what they were singing.
For me though the worst part was unfortunately the lighting. It felt very uninspired throughout and like it had been done on a very tight budget which cheapened the whole production. There were times when characters faces were in darkness and just adding a very subtle follow spot would have aided this.
I can’t take away though what a wonderfully epic story this is and I would definitely love to see it again. I’m sure if the technical aspects are ironed out then this has the potential to be a 5 star production.
The House with Chicken Legs continues performances at Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday 7th October. Head to www.theatreroyal.com to check availability and book tickets. You will also find details of captioned, BSL interpreted and audio described performances.
All views are my own and I pride myself on being honest and free from influence.
My ticket for this performance of The House with Chicken Legs was gifted by Theatre Royal Plymouth who invited me to watch the show in exchange for my honest review. The fact that my ticket was gifted played no part in the content of my review or the star rating given.
Eve De Leon Allen as Marinka; Lisa Howard as Baba; Stephanie Levi-John as Yaga; Michael Barker as Ben; Elouise Warboys as Nina; Dan Willis as Jackdaw
RUNNING TIME (approx):
2 hours 35 minutes, including interval
This production contains themes of loss
The Theatre Royal Plymouth is the principle home of the performing arts in the South West and is the largest and most attended regional producing theatre in the country. Their mission is to develop and deepen people's engagement with pioneering creativity in Plymouth and the South West, delivering experiences that spark delight, expression and fulfilment. The venue offers three performance spaces of various sizes, the largest being The Lyric which accommodates the big touring productions. The Drum and The Lab are smaller, intimate spaces and often offer pioneering productions and I have personally seen some excellent productions in these spaces.