There's nothing new about tough fairies: Angela Carter's retellings are a punchy reminder that they used to be meant for adults, not children, while the vogue for dark stagings of the Grimm Tales has firmly reminded their audiences that the Cinderella's ugly sisters cut their own toes off, or that Rapunzel gave birth to illegitimate twins in the wildness. But Caryl Churchill's elemental spirit The Skriker is especially nasty, eschewing gothic violence in favour of a more pyschological school of horror. She hides her vulnerability and need to be loved in a fascinating series of transformations, all intended to lodge her firmly in the lives of two young women who try their best to evade her.
Maxine Peake is astonishing in this central role, a shapeshifter who can age decades in a second, and transform from snarling old woman to alluring siren: hard to doubt her power over her two thralls when her magnetism is so strong, even metres off. She spits poetry like it's money, each word hard and polished, and makes small change of Churchill's new coined expressions. The Skriker's anguage is one of the play's greatest joys, a seagull's stomach medley of childish rhymes, saltier expressions and regurgitated folklore that's centuries old, like her. But the play is also a masterpiece of shifting atmosphere: from the mundanity of a wintry playground to the fantastic faerie banquet at the play's heart, where a frenzied cast tear into roasted limbs as well as milder delicacies.
The staging turns what could be a purely aural pleasure into an immersive bacchanal. Royal Exchange has an octagonal ampitheatre shape with two galleries that wrap all the way round and room for an entrance on each of its eight sides. It's so distinctive that it takes a lot for a production to make its mark on it: where Simon Armitage's Last Days of Troy (complete with feeble fun-size wooden horse) struggled, The Skriker thrives thanks to its designer Lizzie Clachan's bold aesthetic decisions.
The stalls seats have been taken out and replaced by long distressed aluminium trestles in a dark and dirty painted space - like a supper club that's taken the industrial-chic thing several times too literally. Their surfaces form a kind of catwalk for a wild and wonderful cast of fairies to prance over: one has a huge fleshy ear grafted onto his head, another a shag-pile back that would defy the most diligent waxer.
Haze hangs thickly in the air, smoothing the joins in the space's series of surprise transformations: fountains and waterfalls appear and disappear at the wink of a faery's eye. Clachan's masterstroke is to create panels that roll back to reveal spaces with vitrine-like installations that encapsulate the dreams and memories of the Skriker's victims, inhabited by Christmas trees or Rachel Whiteread style doll's houses set in fields of sunflowers.
The Skriker feeds on these warm remembered scenes, learning and gathering nourishment from other peoples' stories. It's what makes her so terrifying and beautiful: a parasite that weaves the life blood she sucks into word sculptures of dazzling power. This stunning production turns her second-hand magic into a first-rate enchantment that's both unsettlingly familiar, and thrillingly original.