Theatre review: The Hen House, Riverside Theatre

A celebration of migrant working women characterised by charming performances and a hypnotic soundscape.

The Hen House is an original and electric celebration of migrant working women in Australia. Darting seamlessly between languages, characters and musical genres, siblings Mara Knežević and Josipa Draisma make a charming on-stage duo. Through multilingual quips and farcical characterisation, they invite audiences into a bubbly universe defined by chickens and disco. 

Mila (Knežević) is a long-term employee who smokes a cigarette for lunch and charges her colleagues for carpools. At the end of every day, Mila swaps her uniform for orange gingham and drives home “looking like Katharine Hepburn”. She also hates chickens. Pavica (Draisma) is the freshly minted forelady of the chicken factory – a responsibility she guards deeply. Feeling indebted to the factoria’s overlord, “Mr Gary Boss Man”, Pavica carries out his tyrannical instructions.

Her laser focus on bagging 50,000 chickens per day soon turns the Hen House into the Hell House. Driven by desperation and duty, Pavica finds herself levelling her husband’s disparagements at her former friends. Meanwhile, Mila, fed up with refuting the Boss Man’s sexual advances and his exploitation of her fellow workers, takes a stand reminiscent of Norma Rae. 

The Hen House is at its strongest when it leans in heavily to its premise. The jaunty musical number about the factoria’s production line – from chicken plucking to flushing giblets – is a comedic highlight. From this number onwards, this reviewer was gripped. Underlined by a low rock score, each musical number adds insight and detail to the inner life of the Hen House. This reviewer particularly loved Mila’s language lessons, where she coaches her colleagues to pronounce key English words like “overtime” (OH-ver-time). However, the high-energy pace stumbles during the ballads in the final quarter of the production, including a song addressed by Pavica to her children.

The live soundscape ties the piece together. The hypnotic thrum of disco, punk and pub rock, performed by four musicians in scrumptious 70s costumes with the lead of Music Director Zeljko Papic, shapes the tone and drives the tension. This reviewer would have liked to see more interaction between the characters and the musicians (who are on-stage the entire time). A few casual gestures and references to the musicians, including a clumsy spotlight that seemed to imply they are fellow factory workers, do not do justice to their presence in the production. Special mention must go to lead guitarist Wilhelmina, whose stage presence elevates her role from musical accompaniment to performer.   

Inspired by the story of their late grandmother Bernarda Papić, co-creators (and sisters) Knežević and Draisma have been developing The Hen House at PYT Fairfield since 2020. Bernada arrived in Australia in 1967 and landed a job at Ingham’s Chicken factory in Casula in her first week… ‘She went on to work at Ingham’s for nearly 40 years,’ says Knežević.

Read: Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Queens Gardens, Townsville

Although a chicken factory in 1976 could seem unfamiliar, audiences can instantly connect with the themes of classism, workers’ rights and immigrant resilience at play in The Hen House. The women of The Hen House remind us that survival means more than putting food on the table. Survival means keeping your sanity – and sanity requires community.

The Hen House, created by Josipa Draisma, Mara Kneževic and Šime Knežević
Presented by PYT Fairfield and In Good Company
Director: Anthea Williams
Musical Direction: Zeljko Papic

The Hen House was presented at Riverside Theatre on 7 and 9 September and at Camden Civic Centre on 13 September. It then tours to Orange Civic Theatre on 16 September, The Art House Wyong on 20 September and The Concourse Chatswood on 22 September 2023.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Madeleine is the General Manager of Darlinghurst Theatre Company and the co-founder of LGBTQIA+ theatre company Fruit Box Theatre in Eora, Sydney. She is admitted to practice law and has worked in commercial law and federal government. She has previously written for Reuters, the International Press Institute and the European Journalism Centre. *All views expressed on ArtsHub are her own.