Hag by The Wrong Crowd at The Underbelly

The Wrong Crowd aims to address, as they put it, “a hunger for real, tangible theatricality”. It employs and relies upon a heightened sense of the carnivalesque, of exaggerated grotesque imagery; indeed, it revels in it. Yet herein lies the problem; I’m left puzzled as to who exactly Hag, a reimagining of the Baba Yaga Bony-Witch folklore, is aimed at. The darkness dripping from each scene would suggest it’s for those who can get served in the bar beforehand, whilst its length (at barely an hour) and tameness in terms of dialogue and movement blunts the piece as a whole and gives it a decisively pre-watershed feel. As I said, it’s a little confused.

When Lisa’s mother dies, her father remarries a brutish woman with two horrendous children, known only as Little A and Little B. They bully and ridicule Lisa, who is sent to borrow a candle from Baba Yaga, the bloodthirsty witch-like creature who lives at the end of the forest. Baba Yaga will give Lisa a light if she passes a number of tasks, including entering the underworld, where she is briefly reconciled with her mother. With the help of her enchanted doll, Lisa eventually manages to outwit Baba Yaga, returns home and turns her step-mother and sisters into ashes with her newly acquired flame. It’s a plot and a production that borrows heavily from other sources, most obviously Cinderella and Orpheus, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Rachael Canning’s design incorporates a deliberately eclectic aesthetic; we the audience are in on the joke, we know we are watching puppetry, seen for instance when Lisa’s step-mother tells her daughters that their lips are “so much prettier when not moving” (they, of course, lack moving mouths), whilst I enjoyed the fact that Baba Yaga’s open fire, the gateway into the underworld no less, was little more than an electric heater which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a grotty bedsit. Equally, when first flicking through the programme, I confused Little A and Little B’s masks with those used in Gay Bingo, which, incidentally, I last saw at the Soho, all snout-nosed and heavily made-up – these are indeed garish creatures.

Elsewhere, the piece is highly atmospheric; Frank Moon’s lighting and sound design work well, with the whispers and cries of the lost souls of the underworld engulfing the audience, whilst the twelve skulls which hang from thick rope flicker gold occasionally and ominously.

There are committed performances from the four-strong cast also. Sarah Hoare is consistent as our heroine Lisa, and Laura Cairns is predictably grouchy as Baba Yaga, but it is the energy and flexibility of Tom McCall and Theone Rashleigh as all the ensemble roles which worked to sustain my attention. Hag reminded me of the similar, yet vastly superior, Mister Holgado at the Unicorn earlier this year, a show which stamped its authority over the child-friendly gothic genre. I understood what Mister Holgado was trying to be, with Hag, I’m still not convinced.