Theatre review: The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken Legs, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, till 30 December.  9+. By Les Enfants Terribles.

This is an original combo of: Panto meets Russia meets Grief. Does it work, though?

The House with Chicken Legs poster

The Panto 

The acting was larger-than-life, with the Baba and Yaga matriarchs carrying the comedy very well. The heroine Marinka began to grate with her over-earnest wide-eyed, chin-jutting pleading whine. Even a panto needs some understatement. 

The charming folkloric Costumes reminded me of the healing fields at Glasto. The Set was a cluttered, cut-away log cabin, or izba, on wheels. (Not ‘ibza’ as it appears in the programme). Puppets were used to cut corners but they were a bit too small for the auditorium to be effective. 

Due to all the whizz-bang videography and music, it went on far too long; a 9-year old neighbour was all ready to go home at the end of the first half. Perhaps paring it right back to two 30 minute acts and a 20 minute interval would be more realistic for a young audience, especially since the songs were pretty unmemorable. The sensory overload made it seem like the egos of the creatives had crowded out the core message of the story and I wondered what the author really thought of it all. 

 

The Russian connection 

Russian death myths inspired the author, with a Baba Yaga ushering the newly-arrived ‘departed’ through her home which doubles as a portal to the Other Side. The Baba Yaga’s job is to organise a joyful send off party by listening to their stories and getting them to focus on the positive so they transition with gratitude. 

Does Russia have anything to teach the Grieving? The message which was repeated a little too often, in the face of the slightest sign of blubbering, was ‘Go with gratitude, return to the stars,’ and ‘Be happy for what you had and not sad for what you lost’ and ‘Death is an opportunity to celebrate life’. 

But is this enforced jollity really going to help with the healing process? Yes on an intellectual level we are all made of star dust and yes we all have to die and yes we will return to nature. But grief is a form of depression and it simply doesn’t respond to glib well – wishings. Only the non-depressed don’t understand this. 

The blessing is that those who really are grieving need not fear being triggered into any unseemly public outpourings; the depiction of grief was so divorced from reality. 

‘You are dead!’ was the brutal welcome heard repeatedly as the next dazed newcomer rocked up. I wondered if any of this was passed by a Grief Counsellor, or grief charity like Compassionate Friends either by the Author or Creatives. You don’t want your children terrorised by a string of the walking dead, being given a pep talk by a domineering old hag who then bundles them off to float alone in the blackness of space for all eternity. 

A brief ‘Whaddaythink?’ to my well-read young neighbour in the interval elicited precisely zilch response, suggesting he would not be traumatised in the least, as he had not understood a thing. As the production has been timed, possibly unwisely, for the panto season, many in the audience were considerably younger.  His accompanying adult admitted, ‘I’ve no idea where this is going. The last Enfants Terribles production I saw before lockdown was delightful.’ Perhaps ET should have stuck to fluffier themes such as Friendships or Finding Something Lost. There was no gushing from the adults of the party at the end, and they’re in the theatre industry. Young’un said,clutching at straws: ‘The second half was better. I liked the chicken leg dance’.  That’s it. For 2.5 hours of effort and goodness knows how much taxpayers’ money. I think we should know what these things cost. With a breakdown. 

Given my experience of grief for my 2-year-old son, following medical negligence during treatment for ALL leukaemia, I think I’ve earned the right to say I found this story and its stage adaptation insulting because of the brisk, insensitive way in which the grief is dealt with. 

 

Representing Grief 

If I was to stage a play about grief, it would be adults-only, an all black stage, with a suggestion of waves and daylight at the very top, like a blow-up of a zoo aquarium. Grief is minimalist, it sweeps away all the clutter and pettiness of life. You’re left with distilled pain, 80% of your waking day, and 20% for everything else. 

A single main actor would be lying on the seabed, screaming, yawping, weeping, sleeping, joyless, self-medicating with sleeping pills, thinking aloud, replaying the tragedy on a loop, begging forgiveness, howling WHY and NO. 

Then one actor after another would waft in and say all the things people say in an ignorant attempt to help. ‘He’s with the angels now.’ and ‘He was loved.’. The prostrate actor would make a polite gesture of listening and then return to their exquisite solitary pain. A floodlit living sibling would flash on and off, triggering some cooking on auto-pilot, or some shopping for food, interrupted by vomitus wailing on the road, kneeling amongst the bags in helplessness. 

The husband would be seen walking away when the screaming started, to weep silently in his own separate bit of seabed. This would be the first act, something of the spirit of the third book in Samuel Beckett’s nihilistic Trilogy. 

The second act, a calendar up high would start indicating the time and each change in the month or year would be accompanied by small changes in behaviour. The water level would edge lower to indicate the grief being managed better. Triggers like ‘How many children do you have?’ would send the hero plunging back into the blackness, less deep every time, with kicking up to the surface taking less effort each time. 15 years in, a friend could ask very delicately ‘Do you have any good memories of him?’ And that would be the first time to connect him with happy thoughts. 

But there would be no wading out onto  the shore, ‘getting closure’ or ‘moving on’. It would end with the waves lapping around the waists of the actors, with the hero still sinking intermittently to the bottom when asked stuff like ‘How old would he be now?’ 

And the audience, what would they need, to be able to sit through this? I imagine an open, soft play area in black, with spaced-out squidgy chairs, crash mats and padded walls. I need cuddly toys and punch pillows scattered around, and security men to hold people when they want to thump their partners/relatives for being worse than useless. Grief counsellors would be stationed outside. As one pained yell emanating from the audience  kicks off other agonising shrieks, the stage action would stop, the actor slump to the sea bottom, and lie motionless until the wails subside. Because once you know this kind of pain, you become attuned to others’ torments, and cannot but feel what they are feeling. The pain of the audience would become woven into the story as the voice of the actor: a real public sharing of grief, scream therapy, cloaked in darkness for a bit of dignity, unlike anything our emotionally repressed culture has as yet sanctioned.

Writing this theatre review has been a grieving journey in itself, triggering flashbacks and crying for my lost son as I swung between anger and despair. Imagine if I was a child who’s just lost a sibling, without Time the Healer and some coping strategies honed over 22 years. Disastrous. 

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