Anyone not used to Scotland’s climate might think that keeping children occupied on a May evening would be a doddle. Let them run around outside in shorts and a t-shirt, getting fresh air and vitamin D. But for the natives, we know that it might be a bit damp. And cold. And so it was that one rainy, cold May evening we put on our coats and boots and headed into Perth in search of something bright and and exciting to warm our cockles.
Luckily for us, Baba Yaga was on at the theatre. What the heck is Baba Yaga? Is it somehow related to rum baba? Is it yoga for babies? No, dear friends, it is not. It’s a new, two woman show aimed at 7 to 12 year olds. After parking the car (free after 6pm!) we made our way to the concert hall. Then we made our way to the Theatre, where it was actually being shown! I find the Horsecross/Perth Theatre website a bit confusing, and had never been to the Joan Knight Studio before. It turns out to be a modern, 200 seat theatre inside the new and improved Perth Theatre complex.
Here’s what we knew about Baba Yaga before it started. Baba Yaga herself is a character from Russian or Slavic folklore who may or may not be a witch. She also turned up in an episode of Scooby Doo Mystery Incorporated, where she seemed to be in charge of a house that sprouted chicken legs and ran around. These are the things you learn when living with a pair of eight year olds.
Here’s what we know about Baba Yaga now, having seen the show. She’s weird. She’s funny. She’s scary. She’s crazy. She is one of the few women in the world who can rock wearing a handbag on her head. She lives in Poultry Park Apartments, where pets, noise, music, laughing, barbecues and drawing pins are just some of the things that are against the rules. “Rules, schmules!”, she says to the unfortunately named Vaselina, who’s the concierge of the apartment block. Vaselina lives a grey and silent life, fearful of making the slightest noise in case the other residents shout at her. But Vaselina has dreams. Dreams of singing “Go tell it on the mountain” or figure skating in spangly sequins. This is the story of how Vaselina must pluck up her courage and confront Baba Yaga about her music, her pets and her drawing pins. Vaselina goes on a journey, not just to the 101st floor. Surprisingly, Baba Yaga also goes on a journey. The jelly baby chomping, crispy skin loving enigma who often menacingly declares “I’m hungry. I’m always hungry.” to the back drop of images of Vaselina between a knife and fork or in a cooking pot finally finds herself satisfied by the end of the show. (After hearing Baba Yaga saying “I’m always hungry” for the third time, my son called out “We know you’re hungry”!).
The audience was made up of a couple of school groups, some families and some adults. While waiting for the performance to start, the children were entertained by following the progress of a silk worm, projected on to different shapes on stage. We didn’t realise it at the time, but the worm had Vaselina’s face on it which was a clue to the theme of personal growth and finding your calling. The whole show is enhanced by clever video projections, animation clips and sound effects. We could feel Vaselina’s tension as she tried to carry small tasks in complete silence, only to have the sounds amplified hilariously resulting in a series of shouty orders to be quiet from the scary tenants. Never has a stick of lip balm caused such a commotion! Both of my children were a bit scared at this part as the shouting tenants’ faces on the projection were fierce and weird. It’s a show that keeps you vaguely unsettled, never quite knowing whether to laugh or be afraid. It was interesting to note that most of the guffaws and chuckles coming from the audience were from the grown ups. I think the children didn’t quite know what to make of it although the adult audience might realise that it could best be described as “trippy” as my sister said. Younger children are likely to be frightened, unless they’ve been raised by wolves or are in the habit of watching The Twilight Zone or reading the original version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales! Despite the weirdness, it has an uplifting message and a happy ending. Running time is well judged for the target audience’s age group at around an hour and it managed to keep even my autistic, fidgety child engrossed. Watching Baba Yaga is like taking a sudden detour into an alternate universe where things are just a little off.
There is plenty of wit here, both in the dialogue and the use of video and music. I loved Vaselina’s Nan’s babushka, who bolsters her courage when facing Baba Yaga, voiced in a comedy Russian accent, “You got this, Vaselina!”. The children enjoyed the lift’s trip ever upward to strange new places, helped by making a hole in the roof using a saw, which Baba Yaga later plays to accompany one of the songs. The cast are excellent, Shona Reppe as Vaselina is very engaging and has the audience rooting for her. Her very expressive features easily convey fear, tension, unease and ultimately joy. Christine Johnston’s Baba Yaga does a skilful job of walking the tightrope between pantomime villainy and eccentricity, keeping us wondering whether Vaselina will end up as dinner. As a touring show, it makes sense that the set is simple, but it’s also very effective. One very nice touch – the actors came out to meet the audience at the end of the show. My daughter loved shaking hands with them and telling them “Well done!’. (My son was too scared!). The whole experience (and it is an experience) is a fun, freaky, frightening, fabulous voyage into the realm of dreams and nightmares. It is heading next to the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival where it deserves to be feted and feared in equal measure.
Written by K. Williams