IMAGINE a house with chicken legs. Such an image will come to stage life in Les Enfants Terribles’ account of Sophie Anderson’s novel at York Theatre Royal from September 6 to 9.
First staged at HOME Manchester in 2022, Oliver Lansley’s adaptation is on its premiere tour, visiting Leeds Playhouse too from September 13 to 16.
Directed by Lansley and James Seager, with music and sound design by Alexander Wolfe and songs co-written by Wolfe and Lansley, The House With Chicken Legs transports audiences to a world inspired by Baba Yaga with the aid of puppets, live music, masks and magic.
The story follows Marinka, a young girl who dreams of a normal life, where she can stay somewhere long enough to make friends, but she must surmount one problem: her house has chicken legs and is liable to move without warning.
Such propensity to movement mirrors Les Enfants Terribles. “We kind of go all over the place,” says director Oliver. “I’m based in London, but this production originated in Manchester last year with HOME as our partners, playing only in Manchester. This tour will be the first time everyone can see it, as we move around the country, which is very exciting.
“We brought The Trench to the Theatre Royal [for the TakeOver Festival in June 2013] and we’re delighted to be coming back to York.”
Since the Manchester run, Lansley and Seager have “tweaked bits here and there, trimmed bits here and there, and some of the cast have changed”. “But we still have our original Marinka and Baba, Eve de Leon Allen and Lisa Howard,” says Oliver.
Howard will need no introduction to York or Leeds audiences, whether from Park Bench Theatre’s Every Time A Bell Rings in the Rowntree Park Friends’ Garden or her Spirit Of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol at Leeds Playhouse.
“The book was written as a young adult novel, but the play is suitable for children aged nine upwards,” says Oliver. “It was inspired by the tale of Baba Yaga, who, in an old legend, did have a house with chicken legs. Her job is to guide the souls of the dead into the afterlife, so Sophie’s book is one of those stories that’s magical and is written for young readers but deals with adult themes, but in a really magical way.
“Marinka is the granddaughter of Baba Yaga and is destined to be the next of the guardians of the gate, but like most teenagers [or 12-year-old in her case], she’s rebelling and trying to find her own way in the world in that space.”
Marinka, played by an adult in Les Enfants Terribles’ production, is dreaming of leading a normal life. “But she doesn’t really know what that is, and there’s that thing of her being a fish out of water, pretending to be a normal child, but not knowing what the rules are or how she should behave,” says Oliver.
“But then she discovers that there’s no such thing as normal and that everyone has their own complications.”
Among those complications addressed by Anderson’s story is the impact on young people of moving home. “There is this idea at play of having to move around constantly, particularly for young people, whether changing school, moving house, moving from town to town, when they want security,” says Oliver.
“That security comes from family, and that’s what ‘home’ is, rather than a physical place that you call home.”
Be assured, audiences will see a house move on stage…on chicken legs. “That’s the sort of thing we love to do,” says Oliver. “And yes, we’ve managed to make it fun, after we looked at different ways of doing it and finally settled on one, because it has to be really magical.
“We try to make all these things part of the show as seamlessly as possible, looking at the best way to tell a story with the tools available, such as our video designs by Nina Dunn, who did the Jaws show, The Shark Is Broken, in the West End.”
Crucially too, The House With Chicken Legs “deftly navigates the complexities of loss from a whole new perspective”. “The story explores how we look at death differently in different cultures: in our culture we don’t talk about it much, but other cultures celebrate it, like the Day of the Dead in Mexico,” says Oliver.
“But young people have had to confront death over the past few years with Covid in a way that they’ve not had to before that. Death doesn’t have to be a scary thing, but we do give it that ominous status in our country by not talking about it.”
Les Enfants Terribles in The House With Chicken Legs, York Theatre Royal, September 6 to 9, 7pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee; 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
Copyright of The Press, York