Lisa is given something by her dying mother. Something she doesn’t want. Little does she know that learning to accept it might be the only thing that will save her own life. The Wrong Crowd reinvent one of Slavic folklore’s most extraordinary characters, the child-eating hag-witch Baba Yaga. Fusing visually inventive storytelling, live action, puppetry and music they invite you into a fantastical world to ignite the imagination.
If this is meant to be a children’s show, then I am fairly glad there weren’t many children in the audience for Hag, as I am sure they would have been scared witless in their tents later that night, as the shadows of drunker revellers made shapes on the canvas. This is a dark and chilling tale about a cannibal witch who lives deep in the forest, and the poor girl who is sent into her lair by her wicked stepmother.
A traditional Slavic fairytale, the story of Baba Yaga is not an unfamiliar one, combining what feels like the story of Cinderella with Hansel and Gretel, Rumplestiltskin and a few other classic tales besides. So with such a familiar story, the skill and entertainment value is all in the retelling, and The Wrong Crowd pull this off with masterful skill.
They combined the use of masks with physical theatre, puppetry, strong character work and an impressive set. The set consisted of a central dais, with an armchair and a perch strewn with human remains for the vile old hag to clamber over. Hanging above all of this were a great many skulls, which lit up and glowed orange at various points during the play. They were very visually arresting and macabre, and the way they were wired was very cleverly done, allowing for a skull to be detached from the rig whilst remaining illuminated.
The character of Baba Yaga was an interesting mixture of puppet and actor. The body of the actor was the body of the witch, but her head was a puppet, held at arms length and attached to a grizzled neck ligament, coming from the actor’s shoulder. It was highly effective, and though you could see the actor’s face, I rarely found myself looking at it, as the puppet head was so expressive. Another marvellous feature of the hag character was its voice. A rich, strong, Scottish accent which boomed out over the excellent sound system in the theatre tent, the delightful pronunciation of words such as ‘hooose’ (for house) and ‘gerel’ (for girl), were so fantastically in keeping with the character and made her a pleasure to listen to (despite her gory words and bloodthirsty tendencies).
This was the first outing of Hag, and whilst very slick, there were a few things which could have done with a bit more work. At one stage the girl, Lisa, is feeding the hag, and something about this scene didn’t quite work for me. There was a lot of rushing around with plates, and it felt a bit confused and definitely went on too long. I think it would have helped to have some fast paced music behind it, and to cut its length significantly. Also, at the end there is a scene where the evil sisters get their comeuppance, which should be a big climactic moment, yet somehow it fell a bit flat which was disappointing seeing as the company executed other similar moments in the piece with much more skill and stagecraft. Finally, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more singing in the show. The ensemble style of the piece lends itself to choral singing, macabre ditties and discordant harmonies, and at the very end there is an excellent example of this, sung with great skill by the entire cast. Why these musical talents were not used throughout is a bit of a mystery, and would have greatly enhanced the effect of the show.
That being said, these are small matters, and overall, Hag is finely performed, spine-chilling and not for sensitive children prone to nightmares!