Review: Escaped Alone Brews Storm In A Teacup
The running length of Caryl Churchill’s new play Escaped Alone may only be 50 minutes but it runs in the mind for a lot longer than that. Now 77, like Beckett and Pinter her work has become more concise in late career, but it packs a punch well above its body weight. Though she has not written a full-length play for well over a decade, Churchill continues to take on big subjects in an innovative way. Her most recent work Here We Go (premiered at the National Theatre at the end of last year) focused on the death of an old man in the form of a triptych, while Escaped Alone mixes inconsequential chitchat with catastrophe.
It starts casually with neighbour Mrs Jarrett dropping in for tea with three other older women in a back garden one summer afternoon. They proceed to chat mainly amiably and aimlessly about a range of seemingly trivial subjects including common acquaintances, local shops and TV drama, reflecting a quiet life in retirement.
But beneath the light-hearted chatter it emerges that each woman’s life is overshadowed by a trauma: Vi is estranged from her son after serving six years in prison for the manslaughter of her husband, Sally’s phobia of cats is strangely compulsive, agoraphobic Lena is depressed, Mrs Jarrett is in the grip of a ‘terrible rage’. Furthermore, the tea party patter is interrupted by the latter alone describing directly to the audience the terrible breakdown of society after an ecological meltdown.
Churchill again pursues dystopian themes featured in other of her recent plays such as A Number and The Skriker, but here with a bizarre, sometimes satirical humour that is quite unsettling, as mundane comfort is spliced with an alternative reality of apocalyptic doom. And just as disaster seems to await our planet, the four women are also inundated with their own individual problems as they struggle to keep their heads above water. Meanwhile, on the surface all seems bright and cheerful, as they sing in harmony Da Doo Ron Ron in a play that is deceptively entertaining.
James Macdonald’s discreet and subtle direction ensures the play’s subversive message seeps through naturally. Miriam Buether’s design of green suburban garden and pale-blue sky is complemented by Peter Mumford’s sunny lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound of background road and air traffic, changing dramatically for spot-lit interior monologues and the flickering, fiery-fringed ‘black-hole’ apocalyptic direct addresses.
It’s very unusual for a play to feature just older women, and here the cast carries the show brilliantly. Linda Bassett’s Mrs Jarrett is an amusingly eccentric, Cassandra-like doomsayer, with June Watson as the affably violent Vi, Deborah Findlay as the cat-obsessed Sally and Kika Markham as the self-effacing Lena, all contributing to an accomplished ensemble performance of fragmented, pleasantly unpunctuated conversation that seems to be heading towards a massive full stop.
Escaped Alone is on at Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS until 12 March. Tickets £10-£35. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 03 February 2016