Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.9 (reviewed 8 September)
The Hen House, to put it quite simply, is plucking brilliant. Riverside Theatres was packed to the rafters with this surprising hit story about the treatment of female factory workers during the 1970s.
Our heroines are Mila (Mara Kneževic) and Pavica (Josipa Draisma), two migrant women working in a chicken factory (or, as they pronounce it, “the fucktoria”). Day in and day out they work on a production line, plucking, slitting, gouging, cleaning, hanging and bagging chickens in terrible working conditions under the watchful gaze of the sleazy and exploitative “Mr Garry Boss”.
Pavica proudly proclaims she “likes respect” and is determined to get it, even if she has to wrangle every chook in the fucktoria with her own gloved hands to prove to Mr Garry Boss how serious she is about her job as forewoman. She knows how to make sacrifices and suffer in silence.
Her friend, Mila, is more vocal about her distrust and disgust that “everything is shit”; she’s the only one in the group to have her own car, and is repeatedly harassed by Garry who threatens to fire her if she doesn’t go out with him.
The storytelling is brilliant, told with dripping sarcasm and a great deal of comedy. Every mundane detail takes on significance, for example, the daily ritual of getting a lift in the car with Mila where they can practice their English while bitching about work in their mother tongue. They have co-workers they can’t stand, such as bogan Aussie Joyce and her non-stop bragging about “the time she worked at the jam factory”. They give us a glimpse into their home life and what it feels like to be treated by their uncaring husbands as ‘cash cows’. Their vivid descriptions of what it is like to handle dead chickens, blood dripping down their aprons, sweat pouring off their faces, fingers bulging with tenosynovitis, and the pain and loneliness of being trapped in working class society with no power and little independence, brings out the heart of the story of a migrant woman’s hopes and aspirations for a ‘better future’ in Australia. As an audience, we find ourselves laughing gleefully at these characters because of the way they are portrayed through comical stereotypes, and yet there is a fundamental truth that is also very powerful. My own mother, who immigrated to Australia from Cairo in 1976 and worked most of her life in a lowly paid job in a nursing home, would definitely relate to many of the themes explored in this production.
Creators Mara Knežević, Josipa Draisma and Šime Knežević, director Anthea Williams and musical director Zeljko Papic have done a superb job balancing the comedy with the more serious themes of dignity, respect, and assimilation into Australian culture. The production quality, writing and appeal is on par with Thelma and Louise, The Castle, Animal Farm and Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin that also explores the concept of the underdog fighting for a fair go against socio-economic obstacles. There is a charming authenticity and deprecating humour that makes it endearing and relatable.
In terms of setting, I was expecting to see the interior of a chicken factory, but surprisingly it was set up for a live all female rock band. Through monologues and dynamic songs full of funk, soul and rock n’ roll, paired with sparkly country glam outfits, this sister-combination act absolutely killed it. (Just quietly, we’d all love to know where did they source Pavica’s patent-checkered-trench coat?! Must have!!)
The show runs at a solid 90-mins duration with no break, giving us a taste of the heat and endurance of working on a production line, but the payoff is so, so worth it. The finale had the audience cheering for the triumph of poetic justice.
The Hen House played at Riverside Theatres 7-8 September and will be playing at Camden Civic Centre on 13 September. For tickets and showtimes at Camden, go to https://www.camdenciviccentre.com.au/events/thh23/
Image credit: Anna Kučera