Review: The Skriker at Styx

Photo: William Walsh

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At Styx, a disused ambulance depot in Tottenham Hale and a venue aptly named for revivals, it’s 90s Season. Following on from Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and Anthony Neilson’s Normal, Gruff Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s surrealist The Skriker to a captive audience.

As the play opens it’s unclear whether we’re on earth or in the underworld - and it pretty much stays that way. Two women, Josie (Briony O’Callaghan) and Lily (Jenny Swingler), sit opposite one another while an unearthly creature spit and crackles, wraith-like between them. Lily is visiting Josie in a psychiatric hospital where she’s being held, we’re led to believe, for murdering her own infant. It’s here that The Skriker, an ‘ancient and damaged fairy’ appears to Josie in the guise of another patient, before training her sights on pregnant Lily. The objective: to lure one or both down to the underworld where she and her band of creatures might feed on their life forces. 

Chaos reigns in the world of The Skriker, the ground constantly shifting beneath our feet. Creatures from the underworld are present in the human world, and vice versa. The audience itself is splintered into four groups, immersing the viewer in the surreal in-between in which characters from beneath enter and exit from all sides, performing silent vaudevillian mimes and tableaus most often for the audience’s eyes only. They become so much a part of the fabric of the human world that one even provides music - a tense score played on the cello. 

Phoebe Naughton’s Skriker herself is ever-changing, shapeshifting from creepy school girl to Christmas fairy to brutish lad with extraordinary deftness. Her opening monologue is a stream-of-consciousness word-vomit that serves as much as a prologue as it does a disquieting tuning-up for the audience. Naughton’s command of the Skriker’s chaotic and circular language is mesmeric - exploding with staccato stabs one minute and serpentine glissando the next. It’s an extraordinary performance throughout, in which she finds the Churchill’s particular absurdist brand of comedy even in the darkest of moments. 

The Skriker herself remains largely unknowable, and to an extent so does the production, but that’s precisely where both the horror and the comedy lie. We rarely know where the characters are, who they are, or what they are. Gruff have managed to conjure a feeling of constant yet ellusive threat. We don’t know what it is we’re afraid of, but we’re afraid of something, and so we laugh nervously all the way through. 

Get tickets until April 8th.
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