The Skriker (Manchester International Festival)

Maxine Peake stars as Churchill’s diabolical diva in this revival at the Royal Exchange

Maxine Peake (the Skriker), Laura Elsworthy (Josie), Juma Sharkah (Lily)
Maxine Peake (the Skriker), Laura Elsworthy (Josie), Juma Sharkah (Lily)
© Jonathan Keenan

Caryl Churchill's skriker is not a trades unionist, nor a footballer, but a shape-shifter and death portent, who comes out of the forest and quagmire to goad and transform the ordinary and the miserable in our lives with the power of feeling, anger, joy and revolution.

Twenty years ago, Kathryn Hunter gave an extraordinary, enclosed performance as Churchill's diabolical diva at the National Theatre. At the Royal Exchange, where she is "creative associate and lead artist" and a recently acclaimed Hamlet, Maxine Peake hides nothing in a flat-out, high-energy vaudevillian turn as this clammy chameleon.

She's an angel of death, an agent of change, harrowing the lives of two sisters, Josie (Laura Elsworthy) and Lily (Juma Sharkah). One has killed a child, the other is expecting one. One is institutionalised; one is making her way in the world. They are two sides of the same coin, a Janus head of feminine experience, and they are right on the brink.

But on the brink of what? Social meltdown and ecological catastrophe, perhaps. Although Churchill's meanings and allusions are clearer than they were before, it's still a struggle to line up the sub-Joycean stream of alliterating consciousness – "Revengeance is gold mine, sweet… Fe fi fo fumbledown cottage pie crust my heart and hope to die"'; pages and pages of this – with the glimmer of too much plot or story line.

Best not to worry about it. Director Sarah Frankcom and designer Lizzie Clachan certainly don't, transforming the Exchange cockpit into a medieval mead hall, where part of the audience sits on benches at wooden tables – until moved on for a spectacular banquet scene, a carnival of corruption where an old hag spies her own body parts on the menu – observed by their galleried counterparts above.

Around the perimeter, the floor-level seating has been replaced with domestic and prison-like interiors of small houses and large artificial flowers. A silent accomplice writhes and stretches like a body in hell.

There's a whole array of lost souls, kelpies, hags and characters with names like Nellie Longarms and Rawheadandbloodybones (I think that's the piratical ginger chap with a huge third ear stuck on his bald bonce), and very alarming they are, too. They comprise a vision of the lost future the skriker is both revelling amongst and warning against.

One of the girls spews a coin, the other a plastic toad. Peake is at first a bag lady, then a street punk, then an American hot shot in a TV bar, claiming to be a saintly spirit who's come to do some good, then a master of revels and a Gloriana-style queen at the feast. She’s a Peer Gynt of the dark interior woodland and buried landscapes.

It’s a tour de force and it’s backed up by some sterling ensemble work, a glorious chorus of locals, and fresh choreography by Imogen Knight and an insinuating, sinister soundtrack by Nico Muhly and Antony (of the Johnsons); a very different, less rarefied, collaboration than Churchill had originally with Ian Spink and Judith Weir. And the revival certainly confirms this as one of Churchill’s most personal and heartfelt plays.

The Skriker is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 18 July. Click here for more information and to book tickets.