The kitchen-diner is spotless. A beatific portrait of a woman hangs on a chimney breast, bedecked with crucifixes. Pink curtains frame the stage in a pastel proscenium arch. Alannah Devlin, old beyond her years, in a pink shirt and skirt and yellow rubber gloves, painstakingly cleans the stove with a toothbrush. Everything has its proper time and place. Then Alannah’s younger sister Fianna breaks in through the window and threatens to mess everything up.
Crocodile Fever by Meghan Tyler focuses on a family in South Armagh, Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles. Mammy died in a fire, which Fianna went to prison for, leaving Alannah to care for their abusive father. Fianna thought she was setting Alannah free in taking the blame, but Alannah feels that she is even more trapped. Her narrow life is self-imposed ‘penance for Mammy’. Together they decide to punish their father in a very gruesome way for what he has done to them.
With the darkness of its humour, Tyler’s writing strongly recalls other Irish and Northern Irish plays: Tim Loane’s Comedy of Terrors farces, the abusive family dynamics in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World with its father who just won’t die. Yet the strength of the Devlin sisters reveals how often these classic plays have neglected their female characters. In the play’s world, violence has become normalised – both through regular raids by British soldiers and the horror films that Alannah and Fianna quote endlessly. The only option that seems open to the Devlin sisters is revenge. It is testament to the strength of Tyler’s writing that the audience remains onside no matter how bloodthirsty it gets.
Director Gareth Nicholls expertly navigates the shift in the play’s style from naturalistic family drama to full-on horror slasher. Lucianne McEvoy is a delight to watch as Alannah, sympathetically capturing the quirks of her character’s coping mechanisms without veering into parody. She manages to capture a life ground down by fear in the way she eyes a forbidden cigarette. Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Fianna is bolder, but beneath her swagger an inner vulnerability and a fierce love for her sister shines through. McEvoy and Dwyer Hogg convey so much of the differences between the sisters through physical action, creating a rich and believable sibling relationship. While Fianna drinks rum straight from the bottle, Alannah pours gin into her glass, adds tonic, delicately slices up a lemon, and stirs with a cocktail stirrer before taking a sip.
By the last third of the play, Grace Smart’s kitchen set is not looking so pristine. The walls are streaked with gore. Alannah, hair down, covered in blood, cackling like a witch, stirs a cooking pot. Along with the violence, the dramatic idiom gets more and more extreme. The final scene is a reptilian coup de théâtre that releases the magical realism that had been bubbling up all the way through the play. Sort of ridiculous but also, terrifyingly, right.
Crocodile Fever is on at the Traverse till 25th August. More info here.