Time Out says
A menacing, joyous, brilliant return from the enigmatic Caryl Churchill
'Escaped Alone' returns for 2017 prior to a UK tour and New York transfer. This review is from January 2016
Four oldish women sit serenely in a garden, drinking tea and chatting. Lots of idle chit-chat, lots of gossip about friends and family, lots about each other – their pasts, their fears. Plain-spoken Vi (June Watson) killed her husband and did time for it. Prim, proper Sally (Deborah Findlay) is terrified of cats. Gentle Lena (Kika Markham) seems unable to leave what we take to be her back yard. Occasionally one of them launches into an intensely disturbing soliloquy that the others can’t hear. And every now and again, Linda Bassett’s Mrs Jarrett – the newest member of the group – steps out of the garden into an inky void, where she breaks into a surreal description of a world destroyed by man’s bizarre excesses: floods to punish the thirsty; famine caused by TV; the world’s population buried under mountains by businessmen.
Deciphering the exact meaning behind a Caryl Churchill play feels like a fruitless task when the 77-year-old (surely our greatest living playwright) pointedly refuses to discuss her work. But here are some facts about ‘Escaped Alone’.
Whatever you think of it as a complete piece, line by line it’s hard to imagine you’ll come across a more brilliant play this year: it’s only 50 minutes long, and I gather it was meant to be a lot longer, but maybe every sentence that wasn’t brilliant has been ruthlessly purged from James Macdonald’s production. Much of it is very funny. (‘Pets rained from the sky. A kitten became famous.’) Some of it is incredibly sad. (‘It’s better to be in the empty room because there’s fewer things that mean nothing at all.’)
The acting is wonderful, as are the characters: each woman is an idiosyncratic figure in her own right and a sly subversion of the trope of the serene old dear. They are mischievous, funny, fucked up, plugged into the modern world – there is talk of iPlayer and quantum physics – and occasionally deeply disturbing, most especially Bassett with a late soliloquy that’s simply the words ‘terrible rage’ growled over and over.
And what makes ‘Escaped Alone’ a great play is that it is strangely euphoric: spiked with terrible, apocalyptic foreboding, yes, but Churchill’s funniest since ‘Serious Money’, and with an incredible gift for spinning light out of the dark. While the blue skies of designer Miriam Buether’s bright, beautiful garden set seem to cloud over as the play wears on – or is it smoke? – the women under it remain indomitable. In one scene they simply sing The Crystals’ hit ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, and it’s as lovely a thing as I can remember happening on a stage anywhere.
What does it all mean? Are Bassett’s monologues indicative of a ruined world outside the garden? Or absurdist visions of how awful Churchill imagines the future will be? Whatever the case, they offer a sense of menace that makes the chit-chat of the garden seem more joyful by contrast, a sense that these casual conversations are a pool of radience, defiant of the terrible darkness outside.