Review: Styx at Playground Theatre

Dying is scary. But so too is losing one’s memory. The bitter injustice of Alzheimer’s is in making a person suffer two deaths, one in the mind, and then one in the body. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is little joy to be found in such topics, but a new piece of concert-theatre shows otherwise – asking the question, what if death was less of an ending, but more of a journey?

Max Barton, Ness Thornton and Addison Axe in Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

Max Barton, Ness Thornton and Addison Axe in Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

Styx tells the story of one woman’s experience of Alzheimer’s, using personal reflection, lively songs, and the legendary tale of the musician Orpheus and his quest to rescue his true love Eurydice from the underworld. The tale is often told, from 17th century operas to 20th century rock albums, but is given a thoughtful twist here, subtly comparing the loss of memory to Orpheus’s perilous voyage below.

Max Barton is a charming performer and storyteller with a gift for jazz and blues composition. Together, with a broad ensemble of saxophonists, percussion, guitars, keys and synths, he manages the difficult task of weaving both intimate details with stirring and often rollicking tunes, as well as occasional asides about the nature of the human mind, the function of memory, and the restorative power of music. 

Max’s grandparents both suffered from Alzheimer’s, with his grandfather passing away some time before writing the show. While growing up with music, and well-aware of his grandparents’ affinity for it, he later learned of the Orpheus Club, a jazz club they both ran in the 1950s. Through taped conversations, Max sheds light on this exciting family history, tracing a tale of love, loss, and jazz.

The cast of Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

The cast of Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

The production is a marvel. Jethro Cooke’s lighting design is fantastic, using the inspired choice of many light-bulbs to convey the thoughts of musicians, and steer the narrative from the mythic to the real. The use of dark and light is what makes this show as captivating as it is, and demonstrates that sometimes simple ideas can be the most effective in creating atmosphere, suspense, and even humour.

Not everything works perfectly, however. In telling the story of Orpheus, the show sometimes crosses into quite surreal territory. The dissonant and chaotic sequences, while purposefully uncomfortable, were not always easy to follow and often failed to advance the show’s themes or message. 

Styx is an innovative and immersive experience of death, memory, and music. I was not only moved but inspired by its story and that of Max’s grandmother Flora, whose perspective and insights were both touching and enlightening. Styx may be about a journey to the unknown, but it is at least one with friends. 

Styx is showing at Playground Theatre until Saturday 14 September. Tickets available on the website.