Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Crocodile Fever – a dark family reunion on the border of comedy and cold-blooded horror (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 September)

Early 1980s in South Armagh and Fianna Devlin appears at the family front door one warm evening after eleven years away. The Crocodile Fever audience quickly discover why the reunion with her older sister Alannah is so awkward, and soon realise that both have been imprisoned: one for arson and murder, the other living on eggshells, caring for their abusive, paralysed father.

The weather’s close outside, but the fever temperature is rocketing inside in this humorous and somewhat surreal horror play. Characters’ personalities are exaggerated, their expression ranging from depressed to hysterical. Packets of cheese and onion Tayto crisps turn out to be crucial to the management of the highly-strung household.

Some of the most exciting yet lowkey theatre events each year in Belfast are the rehearsed readings from new writers in the Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. For the last few years, batches of early work have been performed. (One of my favourites was Vittoria Cafolla’s Bloodlines.) Sometimes they represent finished pieces; other times, they’re a selection of scenes from work in progress return to that make you want to hear the full work when it’s finished and further polished. The economics of production and opportunity mean that very few go on to be staged. I missed Meghan Tyler’s Crocodile Fever last year due to a clash with something else in the festival programme, but I can only imagine the audience’s imaginations going into overdrive when some of the plot twists were casually introduced.

Tickets were snapped up for its Edinburgh run this summer, a word-of-mouth and critical success, commissioned by the Traverse Theatre and developed with the support of the Lyric Theatre. Together they have now brought this dark tale to the south Belfast stage.

While living in ‘bandit country’ with British Army troops dropping in to search the house lays down a foundation of agitation, it’s the upstairs/downstairs relationship between widower father and stay-at-home daughter that provides the dynamite, with Fianna’s reappearance lighting the already-short fuse.

Lucianne McEvoy plays highly-strung Alannah with OCD tendencies that mean, if pushed, she could eat her tea off the floor. Yet this repressed and vulnerable figure, bent over with a secret of which only her sister is aware, will momentarily come alive when the right mood music appears and transform into a carefree bohemian wild child, with the most outlandish of thoughts, before snapping back into her sinister real life. But put a chainsaw in her hand, and McEvoy’s Alannah becomes a beast.

Against this, Lisa Dwyer Hogg plays Fianna as a confident, revolver-packing activist who will not be intimidated by man nor beast. While years of incarceration don’t seem to have taken a physical or obviously mental toll, there’s a street toughness to the character who can seem standoffish but longs for something to fill the family-shaped gap in her life. Sean Kearns and Bhav Joshi also appear, the former pushing at the boundaries of his incapacity, the latter bringing fresh tension into the homestead.

The script is brilliantly barmy, quite off the wall, and takes everything to extremes. The ‘sacrament of toast’ is superb, albeit only a mild suggestion of the mania to come. On paper, it’s set in an outrageous fantasy world that couldn’t easily be staged. But in director Gareth Nicholls’ hands, and with Grace Smart’s flexible set design, Crocodile Fever comes to life.

A repeated croak annoyingly never turned into Chekhov’s frog, while I’m not convinced why the manner of the seemingly much-loved mother’s death is accepted without much question by the sisters. Perhaps, just an indication of the torment she experienced at the hands of her cold-blooded husband. And the sensory-overloaded nature of the ending distracted me a little from some of the dialogue that may have provided better closure. But having jumped the shark, so to speak, Crocodile Fever reminds us that the Troubles drove people to distraction and turned them into monsters.

Horror doesn’t often appear in Belfast theatres: the last time might have been when Martin McDonagh’s crushing The Pillowman came to the Lyric back in March 2015. But when the horror arrives, it tends to be rather effective. (Edit: think I rather overlooked David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue which ended with a lot of blood over the carpet in The MAC in May 2018!)

Gareth Nicholls takes Meghan Tyler’s script and imagination and delivers 90 minutes of theatre that you’ll not forget. Explicit and very unexpected, the on-stage horror will certainly be a conversation starter on the way home and over days to come. Crocodile Fever runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 September.

Photo credit: Lara Capelli

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