Review: Crocodile Fever (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Two sisters on the rampage in Meghan Tyler’s play

Lisa Dwyer Hogg in Crocodile Fever
Lisa Dwyer Hogg in Crocodile Fever
© Lara Cappelli

Meghan Tyler's play opens with a woman obsessively cleaning her perfect, pink kitchen until every surface gleams. It ends in a bloodbath, with the room wrecked and an unbelievable, fantasy creature stalking the stage. In the arc between those two points, Tyler creates a wild roller-coaster ride.

Crocodile Fever, presented in association with the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, is set in South Armagh in 1989 and begins when Fianna, younger sister of Alannah (the houseproud cleaner) climbs through the kitchen window, effecting a reunion after 11 years in which she has served a jail sentence for a crime Alannah committed, and then joined the IRA.

As the action progresses, and gin and rum are drunk, it becomes increasingly clear that the sisters are not so much separated by their different personalities, as united by their hatred of their sick, abuser of a father, lying on a bed upstairs. Terrible, bloody acts are subsequently committed; we are deep in the violent territory of Martin McDonagh but with a strongly feminist twist.

I don't think Tyler gets quite far enough in her explorations of what brought the sisters to this point, but it is impossible not to enjoy the whirring energy of the journey which encompasses a full knowledge of horror movies and an extraordinary passage in which Alannah explains the words to the song Africa, which she has misunderstood all her life. These weird digressions are couched in language of great precision and range, shot through with biblical imagery and with a rhythm entirely of its own. "This is a hairstyle of efficiency," says Alannah at one point, primping her neat nun's bun. It's a terrific line, both bizarre and off-kilter and the play is full of them.

Directed by Gareth Nicholls, the play is wonderfully designed by Grace Smart to put a shrine to the dead girls' mother centre-stage, and to allow the progression from the neat lines of Taytos in the cupboards – "my sad snack," says Alannah clutching them – to the mayhem of the close.

The leading actors seize every opportunity the script offers them while simultaneously making characters who could have been cartoons into understandable, wounded women. As rebel girl Fianna, Lisa Dwyer Hogg suggests the pain that lurks beneath the swaggering, gun-toting exterior while Lucianne McEvoy as Alannah carefully mines the sense of loneliness and isolation that leads her to make normality out of increasingly abnormal acts. "I am good at messes," she says. "I am good at cleaning them up."

I'd have liked the pace to be a bit more varied as the action progressed, and for Tyler to make space for moments of calm. But there's no doubt that Crocodile Fever is a blast while it lasts, a bold piece that feels good pouring from the pen of a female writer.