As audience members take their seats in eager anticipation of the unfolding story of The Magic Chicken, a two-man band in dinner jackets and red bow-ties seem to be improvising tunes on percussion, sax and keyboards in a creative, almost manic, fashion.
The music by The Beat Roots is quite tuneful and recognisable, but a little haphazard – it’s a sign of things to come. The setting is a basic cafe with one circular table covered with a red and white check tablecloth; adjacent is a slightly larger black and white, cartoon-like kitchen.
A tall, thin chef with an enormous chef’s hat enters and his fellow chef arrives via the oven amid a goodly amount of smoke. There are no customers for this restaurant and the two are despondent, but into their lives comes a chicken that lays a golden egg.
The chicken is followed by Evil Eric, a villain who clearly is intent on stealing it. Although there are real props on stage, the two chefs are essentially mimes and very few words are spoken. Each action is accompanied by the musicians, who are impeccable with their timing and special effects.
Not a lot happens: the chefs prepare a pizza for the villain, they decide they like the chicken and realise it is valuable, and then they keep it from the clutches of the villain. Along the way there is classic children’s theatre comedy and devices including funny walks, throwing water and food into the audience, fake tears, running into the aisles and pizza dough in faces. There are some very well-staged, slow-motion dives across a table to save the chicken’s life, and slick slapstick and clowning throughout.
The show also features inventive moments such as when the chef’s large knife needs to be sharpened and it is done as a sword fight between the two chefs. The smaller chef’s hat is replaced by a mop and Evil Eric is suddenly besotted by a “young lady” before him; at the same time the chicken is being used as a mop. Being mostly mime, The Magic Chicken challenges its young audience to concentrate carefully when, for example, one chef believes his fellow chef has transformed into a chicken, or the making of a pizza becomes a funeral procession.
The Magic Chicken is colourful, fun and entertaining. There are elements of the goose that laid the golden egg and typical villains versus heroes. The actual chicken puppet, being such a central character, could have done with a slightly more animated face, even though it was operated deftly by the puppeteer; it pecked at the ground, scrambled over doorways, flopped onto the kitchen table and was humorous, but we weren’t that attached to it.
Devised and directed by Geoff Pinfield, the production has a highly skilled cast including Barnie Duncan, Trygve Wakenshaw, Johnny Brugh and Mark Clare; Jeff Henderson and John Bell provide the very clever musical accompaniment. It is mostly a show about creating stage comic business and slapstick in a fairly traditional European style of mime and clowning, making for an hour of entertaining physical theatre.
The Magic Chicken is being presented by New Zealand’s Theatre Beating at the Dunstan Playhouse until April 27, with shows at 10am and 1pm. It is recommended as suitable for ages five and up.
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