TECHNICAL issues delayed the start of Wednesday’s opening night of Les Enfants Terribles’ tour of The House With Chicken Legs.
There would be further hitches during the performance. The house – divided into a revolving interior/exterior and a separate porch – was troublesome to manoeuvre. Something of an irony when Sophie Anderson’s story is all about the house’s tendency to up sticks without warning in the dark of night, keeping 12-year-old Marinka (Eve de Leo Allen) on the reluctant move.
No doubt such gremlins will be ironed out, and indeed it may have been better to hold back the press to later in the week (an opportunity that was indeed offered by the Theatre Royal’s marketing team on arrival).
Likewise, microphone levels will be adjusted to facilitate hearing the lyrics of Stephanie Levi-John’s big number as Yaga more clearly.
On first night, the teething problems took away from the “magically inventive” billing that Les Enfants Terribles’ premiere at HOME, Manchester, had elicited in 2022.
Let’s look at its strengths instead, then. It is a technically demanding show, not only with the regular movement of Jasmine Swan’s set design, but also with the need to work in tandem with Nina Dunn’s video designs and composer Alexander Wolfe’s sound design.
Those two elements are powerful forces at play, together with Samuel Wyer’s puppetry and costume design, supporting the two primary pistons: co-director Oliver Lansley’s script, rooted in storytelling, and Wolfe and Lansley’s songs that recall the Weimar cabaret of Weill and Brecht.
In Anderson’s tale, performed by an actor-musician cast, de Leon Allen’s 12-year-old orphan Marinka dreams of a normal life, where she can stay somewhere long enough to make friends. Yorkshire theatre regular Lisa Howard’s Baba has Marinka under her wing as her successor as the guardian of the gateway, guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife. That gateway happens to be Baba’s house, and where the dead need their exit, with a last warming bowl of food and a star-lit sky, the house must move to meet those demands.
Howard’s Baba, with her Russian accent, grandmotherly garb, strict, cajoling airs and bon mots, chalks up another memorable turn for this ever-watchable northern favourite. De Leon Allen straddles appealing to younger audiences and adults alike with Marinka’s precocious manner, her wish to do her own thing when burdened with the responsibility of taking on a pre-ordained task.
The relationship with Howard’s Baba is played beautifully, as they tug in different directions, Baba answering always to duty; the rebellious, curious Marinka craving the space to grow her way, befriending football-loving, same-aged Ben (Michael Barker). Puppeteer Dan Willis’s jackdaw Jack is her constant companion, becoming amusingly ever more assertive.
The dead, represented by masks, skulls and candlelight, keep popping in, albeit that their first musical number goes on too long, but in keeping with Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the dead are not creepy or scary, but full of personality.
Stephanie Levi-John’s knowing, jive-talking Yaga adds momentum to the second half, leading the singing in the ensemble number Yaga’s Party, when dancing in chicken-legged boots goes down a storm.
By comparison, the key magical revelation, the first spouting of chicken legs by the house, is disappointingly flat, relying on the arm movements of de Leon Allen’s Marinka and Eloise Warboys’ Nina to power those legs. Would a mechanical device have been more effective? Over to Heath Robinson.
Les Enfants Terribles’ first visit to York Theatre Royal since The Trench in June 2013 had been keenly awaited; indeed Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster has wanted to explore the possibility of co-productions. If The House With Chicken Legs fell short of the highest expectations, it still has magic moments, and humour too, in its combination of a rites of passage and adult themes, young life and death, all the more resonant in Covid’s shadow.
Les Enfants Terribles in The House With Chicken Legs, York Theatre Royal, 7pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7pm, Saturday. Leeds Playhouse, September 13 to 16, 7pm plus 1.30pm Thursday and 2pm Saturday matinees. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk