This was my first time at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, and I am now a firm believer that it is “the most ravishing site for a regional theatre anywhere in the country” (Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph). Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is being produced as part of the Manchester International Festival. This is a great revival of a portrait of our fractured England and features specially commissioned music by Nico Muhly and Antony.

The Great Hall of the Manchester Exchange is spectacularly lit and feels theatrical. Once inside, Lizzie Clachan’s design feels degraded compared to the extravagance outside. The staging is somewhere in between a hipster coffee shop and an old metallic warehouse. The communal tables where the audience sit become the stages and the actors move in between the people and the tables. The space is fully used and we are reminded how fantastic ‘in the round’ theatre can be. This play lends itself to a flexible space because of the transformative nature of the title character.

Churchill’s The Skriker is phenomenal, with its mix of blank verse, prose and poetry. Maxine Peake’s character, the Skriker itself, speaks in a lyrical and structured way that contrasts with the other speaking characters – a couple of friends that come across this strange creature, a shape-shifter or the ‘bad fairy.’ The effect of the speech is hypnotic: it draws the audience in just as it draws in the friends, played by Juma Sharkah and Laura Elsworthy.

The script is witty, full of popular references and demanding ideas. Perhaps it could be seen as distancing, as the audience finds it easier to relate to the girls rather than to the Skriker, but I found her oddly endearing, funny, manipulative and decisive. The Skriker is a symbol of the sadness, desperation and cruelty of our times. One friend pities the creature, trying to do the right thing – as does the other in a different way. Part of me got the impression of a morality, tale but after coming out of the theatre I wasn’t sure of this. I tend to find a lot of Churchill’s work highly moral, but it almost seems like a bi-product.

The control and power of the Skriker is shown through the choreography of Imogen Knight, the continual and manic dancing adding a necessary pressure to the text. The music is dynamic, while Peake is a towering force, engaging and challenging. This is another of her collaborations with director Sarah Frankcom and it works so well. I loved this production because of its obvious theatricality and the beauty of the language. Both Peake and Churchill show a delight in displaying a vulgar femininity: “Oh, give me a hug, I smell, its only my clothes and my cunt. Give me a kiss.”

I am a fan of Churchill’s work, and like to see this fantastic playwright produced in such a way that can show off just how beautiful it is. The Skriker is an important work: this production of it is perfect, enthralling and a must-see.

The Skriker is playing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 August. For tickets (limited availability) and more information, see the Royal Exchange Theatre website. Photo by  Jonathan Keenan.