REVIEW: The House with Chicken Legs (Southbank Centre)

Known for their quirky style and imaginative approach, Les Enfants Terribles are partial to telling twisty tales for families. Their latest production is a musical adaptation (by Oliver Lansley) of Sophie Anderson’s children’s novel, The House with Chicken Legs. The show has been touring around the country, and has settled into the Southbank Centre for Christmas. Inspired by the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga, it’s an intriguing coming of age story about destiny and death. Perhaps not the obvious festive production, but we love a dark children’s show so Mummy and moody tween, Crotchet were thrilled to be invited to the press performance last Friday.

Marinka (Eve de Leon Allen) longs for a normal childhood. It’s hard to make friends when you’re constantly travelling, and life can get pretty lonely when your only companions are your Baba (Lisa Howard) and a Jackdaw (Dan Willis). But despite being constantly on the move, Marinka does actually live in a house; her house just happens to have chicken legs that carry it across the globe. It also conceals a gateway to the afterlife, through which her Baba is responsible for ushering the dead on their final journey to the stars. One day, this duty will become Marinka’s but she’s not sure she wants to accept it. Can she carve out her own path or is she destined to live on the boundary between life and death?

Lisa Howard, Eve De Leon Allen, Dan Wilis and the cast of The House with Chicken Legs © Rah Petherbridge

It’s an absolutely compelling story, which is really suited to Les Enfants Terribles’ bold style, featuring dynamic set design by Jasmine Swan and striking costumes and puppetry (by Samuel Wyer) that fuse traditional Slavic elements with a Dia De Los Muertos vibe. Vibrant projections (with video design by Nina Dunn) are also used to convey a sense of movement, as the house gallops across the world.

This visual feast is complemented by music and sound design by Alexander Wolfe, with the eclectic mixture of musical styles taking us on a journey with Marinka. Effective use is made of actor-musicians, allowing the music to form an integral part of the story and giving it a very traditional, folklore feel. Lansley and co-director, James Seager also cleverly use the actors to embody the living aspect of the house (which does have chicken legs, although they only make a token appearance.) The challenge of moving a giant house around the stage does, however, result in some clunky transitions where the magic is spoiled by stage crew slowly pushing pieces of the set into position.

Despite the macabre subject matter, it’s ultimately an uplifting story that explores mortality in a sensitive and through-provoking way. There is also plenty of humour interjected to offset the darker moments, and that’s very much where this production thrives, particularly in the amusing interactions between Marinka and her newfound friend, Ben (Michael Barker).

Running at over two and a half hours (including an interval), it’s a little slow to get started and could do with some trimming, as it starts to feel quite long. Crotchet is quite used to sitting through long shows, but she struggled to stay engaged for this one and we could see other children flagging towards the end too. (It’s fair to point out here that the press performance was on a Friday after school, so tiredness did also come into play.)

We also found it a little too heavy on the projections, and would have preferred the climactic scene in which Marinka travels through the gateway to have used physical theatre rather than a video sequence. It rather loses the emotional connection to have the action take place entirely on screen at this pivotal moment.

While the atmospheric music is enjoyable, the sound balance makes it quite difficult to hear, particularly in some of the more upbeat numbers. A surreal song about a Yaga House party should be a real crowd pleasing moment, but the lyrics are lost in the noise. Stephanie Levi-John’s attempt at a Southern US accent also suffers this fate, becoming almost unintelligible in places. There are also some very loud moments (featuring sustained drumming), so those with sound sensitivities might want to take a set of ear plugs. Similarly, while Jane Lalljee’s lighting design is impressive, some viewers may find the use of flashing lights to be quite harsh on their eyes. Crotchet struggled with both the sound and the lights, which affected her enjoyment of the production.

Overall, The House with Chicken Legs is a promising adaptation that could be truly exceptional if it resolves the problems with pacing and sound. It’s an incredible story, and there are some really great moments within the show, but ultimately we came away wondering whether we might have been better off reading the book. Read our Q&A with author, Sophie Anderson to find out more.

The House with Chicken Legs plays at the Southbank Centre from 13 to 30 December 2023, as part of a UK tour. We received complimentary tickets to the press performance on Friday 15 December.