Escaped Alone review
Time Out says
Four women meet to reminisce – and look to a terrifying future – in this surprising play from leading playwright Caryl Churchill
British dramatist Caryl Churchill has a knack for imbuing intimate scenarios with epic power, which certainly resonates with Red Stitch Actors Theatre, the small venue with a reputation for big storytelling. Written in 2016, Escaped Alone is a prime example; a simple conceit that unlocks an awesome vision exploring the existential terrors we hide beneath a veneer of everyday small talk.
In a pleasant, sun-dappled garden, three women sit chatting over tea. They’re joined by a vague acquaintance, Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth), welcoming her with inconsequential, middle-class conversations about favourite TV shows, the coming and going of shops on the high street, and the accomplishments of grandchildren. These pleasantries are so familiar, we’re lulled into thinking we know these people. But slowly, hints of their unique internal struggles rise to the surface.
A series of soliloquies delve beneath the polite pretence, revealing emotional demons festering within. Sally (Caroline Lee) has an irrational, phobia-driven hatred of cats that provokes an obsessive need to search her home for feline invaders. Vi (Margaret Mills) is a survivor of domestic abuse, and yet is haunted by the violence she has inflicted against her attacker. Lena (Marta Kaczmarek), once a confident office worker, has been robbed of her career and personal agency by an agoraphobia she is unable to overcome. Most devastating of all, Mrs Jarrett, so outwardly mild mannered, is gripped by intense, ceaseless anger, the cause of which is never revealed.
In typical Churchill fashion, there is an element of the surreal to counterpoint the relative naturalism of the garden scenes. A series of seven monologues, delivered by Forsyth (now not as Mrs Jarett, but as an abstract everyman-narrator), tell of bizarre apocalyptic futures. Each of these grim prophecies is studded with gallows humour. A buried, subterranean society devolves into an indiscriminate orgy. A famine ravages the land after 80 per cent of food supplies are diverted to TV studios, while the obese capitalise by selling rashers of themselves. A maelstrom caused by property developers flings cities in every direction, leaving families stuck in the tornado to take selfies (in case they can one day share them). It’s a kind of on-the-nose, laugh-or-you’ll-cry comedy that splices the sardonic cynicism of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror with the whimsy of Lewis Carroll, bringing a wry smile to the lips and an anxious furrow to the brow.
Churchill’s ability to trace profound psychological truths and political intelligence through highly stylised forms is masterful – it’s not for nothing that she is considered one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. As has so often been the case throughout human history when various civilisations have faced impending disaster, the dystopias described feel like distant impossibilities, fates as unlikely as fables that could surely never come to pass. The somewhat dispassionate reports of these world-ending cataclysms contrasts with the searing emotional force of the personal struggles each character faces; issues that are meaningless to the boarder picture of our collective survival and yet are all encompassing to the individual.
Very much in the spirit Churchill’s streamlined 55-minute play, director Jenny Kemp has created a production that is broadly minimalistic yet simmering with subtle complexity. From the gentle emotional baseline of the garden chitchat, each actor must summon a furious rush of panic and pathos in their respective solos, destroying their composure before deftly returning to an amiable calm. This superb quartet achieves this with deeply affecting impact, most notably Caroline Lee, whose dread of cats could easily curdle into unintentional farce, and Forsythe, whose two word repeated refrain – “Terrible rage” – charts the full emotional crescendo from questioning sorrow to desperate fury.
Less successful are the more humdrum exchanges, which use a technique pioneered by Churchill in plays like Top Girls (1982), overlapping lines of dialogue to mimic the jostling of speech in normal conversation. When done well, it allows the drama to seem spontaneous and alive, but when overlaboured, as it was at times in this account, it has the opposite effect, burdening the text with awkward hesitation.
Dann Barber’s savvy set creates two planes to delineate the worlds of this play, revealing a grim and muddied pit beneath the garden where tales of bleak futures are told. It’s a simple yet effective solution for organising the action, but the see-saw flux between garden and apocalypse scenes loses some energy with each repetition.
It says something about the state of affairs that many of the finest plays to emerge in recent years – most written by women – have mused on the end of the world. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, for example, questioned the responsibility of older generations to leave a world fit for those who follow. Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play riffed on what society might become after civilisation’s collapse. Churchill’s message is perhaps less didactic, but no less astute. At a time when anxiety and uncertainty has become the global norm, it may not be fire and flood that wipes us out, but fear’s power to corrode our humanity, picking us off one person at a time.