HAG, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It’s not all that often you hear the witch’s side of the story. Wicked aside, fairytale baddies rarely get a chance to set the record straight – a chance that forms the promising premise for The Wrong Crowd’s creative upending of traditional narratives. The company have set their sights on Baba Yaga, the fearsome child-eating woman who pops up throughout Slavic folklore, at times a villain and at others a helping hand. In HAG, however, it is Baba Yaga herself who is in control of the narrative.

In reimagining this folkloric figure, however, The Wrong Crowd are careful not to fall into the trap of replacing one archetype with another and trading evil villain for misunderstood saint. Instead, their version of Baba Yaga offers a complexity not often found in fairytales, where there is little room for grey between the stark extremes of black and white. She might still gobble up children – often with lip-smacking glee – but there’s more to this hag than simple bloodlust.

Writer and director Hannah Mulder’s tale weaves a colourful new tapestry from the many threads of Baba Yaga’s appearances throughout the stories of the Eastern Slavic world, lightly hinting at never fully revealed depths beneath the witch’s terror-inducing exterior. In the hands of performer Laura Cairns, Baba Yaga is predictably, enjoyably cantankerous, but Cairns also allows for moments of quiet stillness, in which an implicit sadness creeps into her portrayal of this formidable figure. The decision to hand Baba Yaga the narrative reins, meanwhile, immediately colours an audience’s perception of the character, as she speaks out to us from her fireside and invites us into her dark but strangely appealing world.

As in their first show, The Girl with the Iron Claws, The Wrong Crowd also provide a refreshingly tough and resourceful heroine, who might not steer entirely clear of common fantasy tropes, but at least offers a welcome alternative to the Disneyfied princess or helpless damsel in distress. Sarah Hoare’s spirited Lisa is lumbered with all the misfortunes that tend to befall fairytale protagonists: a dead mother, an absent father, an evil stepmother complete with two suitably vile daughters. Unlike Cinderella, however, Lisa doesn’t wait around for a fairy godmother to decide her fate; instead, angry and alone, she runs to meet it, walking right up to the doorstep of the universally feared Baba Yaga.

From Lisa’s fairytale heroine credentials to the three tasks that she is subsequently set by a curious Baba Yaga, HAG follows many of the narrative conventions that it simultaneously upturns, always acknowledging the tradition in which it places itself. It’s hard not to wish for something a little more subversive, but there is an indisputable charm to this simple and familiar mode of storytelling, one that the show is perhaps wiser to embrace than to deny. Mulder also takes the opportunity to insert slices of modern wit – Tom McCall’s fastidious underworld bureaucrat is a particular treat – although the desire to engineer gags is occasionally at the expense of narrative sophistication.

While the story has its flaws and ultimately leaves us wanting more from its intriguing narrator, the visual aesthetic – a clear priority for The Wrong Crowd – is undeniably enchanting. From Baba Yaga’s captivatingly strange appearance to the string of glowing skulls that encircle the stage, Rachael Canning’s design is deliciously dark, with more than a hint of Tim Burton. Gorgeous as it is to look at, however, HAG left me – like its protagonist – still hungry for something more.

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