EdFringe 2021 Review: Styx ★★★

Returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a smaller model with a now two-person line-up comprised of Max Barton and Jethro Cooke, Styx examines the links between family, myth and memory loss through original music and dialogue. Normally performed with the backing of numerous musicians (hampered by the current Australian lockdown), Barton and Cooke adapt the piece which retains its deeply personal core despite being somewhat structurally mixed.

Drawing parallels with the ancient Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, Barton explores the relationship between his Grandparents. Reminiscing on his late Grandfather’s connection with music and retracing this the help of his Grandmother Flora amidst her own Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Barton and fellow musician Cooke examine the construct of memory, intertwining this with myth and Barton’s own discoveries of his Grandparent’s past.

With a stage set-up containing a variety of instruments, a turntable, mic stands and sparse lighting, Styx boasts a broodingly atmospheric canvas – one that feels intimate and personal, perfectly befitting with the tone of the show. Upon entry to the venue Barton and Cooke are conversing with the audience, establishing an awareness of the myth that underpins Styx – that of tragic lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. The latter sent to the Underworld after a snakebite, her heartbroken musical lover determined to travel through Hades’s Kingdom to rescue her. Mythology fans will be aware of the tragic ending which sees Orpheus take a glimpse of Eurydice – breaking his deal with Hades, not to look at her until they were escaped – to her immediate demise. It’s a clever ploy from the performers, making sure that parallels of the themes of loss and love will not be lost on audiences, whilst breaking down the invisible wall between performers and audience.

The heart of Styx comes from audio interview segments between Barton and his Grandmother – recounting her relationship with her late husband, particularly focussed on his love for music. Naturally poignant, these extracts from the then 87 year old are likely to strike a chord with audiences own familial relationships and our experiences with love and loss. Dipping between the interview clips and Barton’s own musings to the audience helps build something of a narrative as the performer recounts how the interview led to him hunting down his Grandfather’s old nightclub The Orpheus Club, its regular entertainer, and later a recording studio with family connections. Barton also peppers his original music numbers throughout these anecdotes, emotive numbers set to guitar accompaniment and inspired by the titular myth and his Grandparent’s story. These do lean towards slightly too sombre/heavy and will not be to all tastes.

As well as impressive musicality, Cooke contributes a number of musings centred on the concept of memory – intriguingly capturing the idea that our memories build atop of each other, losing connection with the real events. These moments, despite being somewhat interesting, add to the busy structure of Styx – as do Barton’s deviations to the side of the stage where he voices characters from the myth in a jarring, angry fashion. With the musical performances, interview clips, Barton and Cooke’s own respective musings, and near re-enactments of the myth, there is a huge amount going on in Styx producing a structurally busy affair. This draws power and impact from the emotive personal interview clips and anecdotes triggered from them.

The deeply personal core of Styx and its naturally engaging human love story impress yet its emotive musical numbers, scientific musings, and character pieces, whilst producing a varied show, detract from the heart of the piece.