Theatre Lovett promise a ‘deliciously dark retelling of Henny Penny’ (also known as Chicken Licken), though Henny Penny is a pretty dark story to begin with. A chicken is convinced the sky is falling down after feeling something drop and hit her on the head. Good subject that she is, the hen heads straight to inform the king, telling other animals along the way what has happened so that they join her. On their journey, a cunning fox convinces the troupe to come into his cave, and gobbles them all up. In a way, it’s the perfect story for our times – Henny Penny is a ‘fake news’ fable, about the folly of believing everything you hear and following ‘alternative facts’, like a headless chicken, to your doom.
But Theatre Lovett doesn’t set the story in a 2018, post-truth world, but in 1918, in a French restaurant in Dublin at the close of the Great War. The company turn the dimmer switch down on this already gloomy tale by telling us what happened next. Henny Penny is no longer the brainless, hysterical bird who unwittingly led her friends to their deaths: as the lone survivor of the fox’s massacre, she is serious and cunning, a waitress devoting her attention to the restaurant’s only patron, Mr Renard (or, translated from French, Mr Fox…). The show’s ominous title – A Feast of Bones – hints at its Titus Andronicus turn. Suffice to say, revenge is a dish best served cold.
A Feast of Bones gets the sombre atmosphere spot on: in the shadowy restaurant the glinting knives are picked out by candlelight, and Mr Renard’s (Louis Lovett) meal is accompanied by the haunting songs of the waitress (Lisa Lembe) and the restaurant’s musicians (Martin Brunsden and Nico Brown). Though the war may be over, its effects are still a devastating presence: the musicians are French refugees, the restaurant’s wine server was lost in action, and even Mr Renard suffers from shell-shock.
The madness of a world war might very well feel like the sky is falling down and, in this retelling, there is something touching about the support the other birds offered Henny Penny, joining her misguided crusade out of loyalty and duty rather than foolishness, a moving camaraderie that has been sentimentalized in countless portrayals of soldiers during the war. But sometimes the parallels drawn between Henny Penny’s story and World War I – such as the suggestion that the animals’ hopeless mission to speak to the King is like the soldiers’ futile march towards war – are a bit of a stretch.
The post-war backdrop also complicates an already unwieldy story: as Henny Penny tries to outwit her foxy foe with twists and tricks, the audience are similarly deceived, so much so that at times A Feast of Bones feels impenetrable. Louis Lovett’s hugely charismatic performance as Mr Renard carries the show, and Nico Brown’s compositions are worth the ticket-price alone, but the narrative could be considerably clearer. In their quest to darken the story, Theatre Lovett have made it almost opaque.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.