Escaped Alone

Caryl Churchill
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson Credit: Tristram Kenton
Linda Bassett Credit: Tristram Kenton
Linda Bassett Credit: Tristram Kenton

Judging by her most recent efforts, Caryl Churchill is developing an antipathy towards long plays. However, despite the brevity of this piece and Here We Go, which opened only a couple of months before at the National, she has lost none of the courage and inventive imagination that have made her one of the most exciting and unpredictable playwrights of the last half-century.

Escaped Alone shares some commonality with the last play, in that it also explores old age from what can be oblique perspectives, aided by a wonderful quartet of highly experienced actresses under the direction of James Macdonald.

Even though the running time is only 55 minutes, there are two distinct strands that characterise the piece.

First, the four women sit in a symbolically autumnal and unkempt garden chatting about life, the universe and everything.

Since this is Caryl Churchill, their conversations might be delivered in a naturalistic style but are rarely commonplace.

Amongst other topics, manslaughter (or is it murder), the activities of family members, past careers and ailments all have their moments. The conversations are never predictable, non sequiturs littering the discussions, while misunderstandings are also part of the mix.

Each of the actresses is close to top form throughout and as a bonus gets to deliver a memorable soliloquy, which in every case both makes a statement about their lives and gives an indication of character.

The youngest of the four, Sally played by Deborah Findlay, was a doctor and still retains the confidence of a professional—that is until cats come onto the agenda.

At the other end of the scale, Kika Markham’s Lena is agoraphobic and uncertain, rarely directing the conversation.

Demonstrating unexpected boldness, June Watson plays Vi, a former hairdresser who was the perpetrator of a crime that landed her in prison for six years during which her young son became an adult.

The outsider, possibly intended to act as representative of those on the other side of the fourth wall, is Mrs Jarrett. Linda Bassett’s character chips in chirpily, without necessarily contributing that much about herself or, for that matter, of value.

However, in the interludes between viewers’ voyeuristic enjoyment of the inconsequential conversations, heralded by a sparking electric frame, she moves into a different mode.

Viewers who saw Miss Bassett in Far Away will recall a series of surreal speeches about genocide and its post-apocalyptic consequences as they listen to what can be very similar and equally poetic material invoking bizarrely malicious diseases, fires, floods and property developers.

Sadly, such subject matter might be extreme but it remains terrifyingly fresh today, uncomfortably and sometimes brutally reminding us of what a bloody world we live in.

Every destructive motive seems to be covered in this series of short but shocking monologues that somehow managed to be simultaneously chilling and funny.

By the end of Escaped Alone, spectators will have been amused, shocked and inevitably with this playwright, made to think about the world afresh.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher