As the audience files in to Traverse 1, we are greeted by a delightfully upbeat 80s pop soundtrack, with the sounds of Cyndi Lauper and Bonnie Tyler palpably enlivening the crowd. It soon becomes clear that this galvanising welcome has been well thought-out: what we’re about to experience requires a lot of energy in the room, to say the least.
The set before us depicts a comfortingly ordinary-looking 80s suburban home. The dominant religious iconography and period detail help establish time and place – namely Northern Ireland, 1989. The pink and white colour scheme and soft pink lighting speak of a peaceful and idyllic family environment. What quickly transpires is that nothing could be further from the truth, and pretty soon blood and body parts, as well as Tayto crumbs, will be smeared all over this pristine interior.
This is the childhood home of rebellious Fianna Devlin, who returns to visit her estranged sister, the pious and neurotically fastidious Alannah. Tension is extremely high from the get-go. We learn that the reason for Fianna’s visit is to celebrate the death of their monstrously abusive father. However, it soon becomes apparent that their father is not actually dead, but is in an upstairs bedroom, paralysed as a result of an altercation with a paratrooper. While Fianna may have managed to escape, Alannah, as his primary carer, has continued to be a victim of his manipulation and exploitation. As the sisters reconnect over several drinks, the shocking reasons for their fractious relationship are revealed, as is the truly horrifying extent of the abuse they have both suffered at the hands of their father. While this premise may not be immediately obvious as fertile ground for comedy and farce, Meghan Tyler’s inventive and hilarious script showcases a talent for dark comedy worthy of Julia Davis or Chris Morris, and is ably supported by the accomplished comedic performances of Lisa Dwyer Hogg as Fianna and Lucianne McEvoy as Alannah. The result is frequent uproarious laughter and applause from the audience, often in response the most unlikely of scenarios.
As the play progresses, events become increasingly farcical and, indeed, decidedly gruesome. While the slapstick tone might stretch the patience of some audience members, it does serve as both a softener when the play descends into a gory revenge fantasy akin to a B-movie, and as an effective gateway when the more overtly anti-naturalistic elements come into force in the final chapter.
Easy suspension of disbelief and a strong stomach are essential for engagement with Crocodile Fever. While the more farcical and macabre elements are perhaps liable to polarise audience reactions, the heart of the play is absolutely rooted in some very important, albeit uncomfortable, truths. The long term impact of abuse is keenly observed, even if presented surreally at times. Tyler’s undeniable skill in combining multiple layers of trauma with incisive humour in such a brave and uncompromising fashion, and director Gareth Nicholls’ ability to translate these efforts into a highly engaging performance, is both exciting and deeply impressive.