Yaga – Drayton Arms Theatre, London

Screenwriter: Kat Sandler

Director: Kay Brattan

What could you productively add to a thriller about a missing student and mysterious family dynamics? If you said “a detailed and educational insight into one of Eastern Europe’s most enduring and versatile myths,” you mean the same thing as Canadian writer Kat Sandler.

Baba Yaga’s story takes many forms. In many countries, from Finland to Ukraine and beyond, she is spoken of in folk lore as a generally elderly woman living in the woods, with the power to help or heal at her will. and her wish, and comes with an assortment of interesting accessories. A house standing on chicken legs, and a mortar and pestle for transportation, for example.

Sandler wrapped the story around his own small-town mystery tale, introducing a pleasingly dark element into already dark events. However, even though all the elements are there in principle, between the mythology, the discordant characters (and the changes), the oddly balanced scenes and a lot of talk about the 2 hours 20 minutes, it feels exhausting and disjointed at times.

The real action, so to speak, takes place somewhere in a small college town in North America. A young student, Henry (son of a wealthy yogurt-producing family) has gone missing and his mother has hired a private detective, Rapp, to help find him. Working with local force Detective Carson, Rapp’s search reveals the young man died, leaving a trail of infidelity and anger in his wake, and uncovers the potentially supernatural and deadly habits of one of the families. from the city.

Three actors play several roles here. As a Baba Yaga figure, along with two generations of the dangerous Yazov family and others, Biz Lyon does a superb job – bringing us into the world of this wise woman and creating a compelling character in the second eldest Yazov. Robert De Domenici plays Henry as well as the detective, switching easily between the two and holding our attention like a strong line through an intricate room.

With the good performances as a stabilizing force, the ins and outs of the narrative swirl. It’s complex storytelling, which is commendable, but it’s too long to retain the essential hallmark of a murder mystery – tension. We see various seductions that could be shortened or removed, characters that are indulged in at length (the old woman’s downstairs neighbor), conversations that could be a quick exchange go into unnecessary detail and MacGuffin plot points that are inconvenient (like a lost podcast episode).

Alongside that, there’s a scattering of little takes that take us out of the action. It’s set in North America, but with a lot of unexplained British accents, references to the girl now living in ‘Europe’ are also flat – we’re in Europe here, tell us a country so we can get engage in history. The Valentina Turtur set that hosts it all is smart, framing it all among the trees and hanging flowers that resonate strongly with both Baba Yaga’s forest house and poor Henry’s last location. But seeing performers waiting and changing costumes and props backstage across the big gaps in the set is eerie and entertaining.

Sandler makes good connections between the two main elements – the folk tales and the criminal investigation. It’s also great to see the focus on strong, confident women and such a focus on the views of women’s discussions in association with the Baba Yaga story and its narration. It’s an intriguing way to understand and enrich both, but the execution is troubled and confusing. With so much in the script, the end result is storytelling that gets shy.

Until November 19, 2022

Martin E. Berry