'Escaped Alone': Theater Review

ESCAPED ALONE - Stage review - H 2016
Courtesy of Johan Persson
A sketchy autumnal work leavened by quirky humor and a strong all-female cast.

Veteran British dramatist Caryl Churchill mixes domestic comedy with dystopian horror in her latest London premiere.

A strong contender for the title of Britain's greatest living playwright, Caryl Churchill is currently enjoying a grand autumnal resurgence at the age of 77. Four of her vintage works have been revived in major new U.K. productions over the past year, followed by two London premieres in the last three months.

The second of these new plays, Escaped Alone is a typically compact one-act affair that adds little to Churchill's reputation for stylistic innovation and linguistic experiment. All the same, this elegant ensemble piece is a charming blend of brevity and levity, and makes a quietly feminist statement with its cast of four older women. A rising tide of rave reviews in Britain will ensure a healthy domestic run, though director James Macdonald's modestly scaled production lacks the immediately obvious export appeal of his stylistically dazzling take on Churchill’s Love and Information, which successfully transferred to off-Broadway in 2014.

Cryptically titled after a line in the Book of Job, via Melville’s Moby-Dick, this production touches on familiar ground for Churchill. She has longstanding associations with the Royal Court, where she was resident writer in the mid 1970s, and with regular collaborator Macdonald. Spanning just 55 minutes, Escaped Alone seems principally concerned with bittersweet late-life anxieties, although the famously reclusive playwright offers few clues outside the text. Having shunned media interviews for two decades, Churchill never publicly discusses the meaning of her work, but her left-leaning feminist standpoint still colors everything she writes.

At first sight, Escaped Alone feels like a Mike Leigh domestic drama reworked by David Lynch. The comfortingly traditional setting is a small English garden on a sunny afternoon, where three female friends invite a curious passing neighbor to join them for tea and conversation. All are in late middle age, though some of the cast look younger than Churchill’s uncharacteristically precise instructions, which specify a minimum age of 70. 

The women trade gossipy pleasantries in staccato soundbites that skip along to a crisply syncopated rhythm, sometimes overlapping, often leaving the audience to complete their truncated sentences. This is a signature Churchillian touch, pleasing to the ear for its haiku-like economy, even when the context is a little fuzzy.

But behind their breezy banter, each of the four women is troubled by different strains of gnawing neurosis. Vi (June Watson) is haunted by memories of murdering her abusive husband, apparently in self-defense, which earned her a six-year prison sentence. Lena (Kika Markham) seems to be suffering from agoraphobia rooted in a debilitating depression, or maybe something worse. Sally (Deborah Findlay) has a phobia about cats that borders on obsessive-compulsive mania. And new arrival Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) is seething with an unexplained rage that belies her cheery surface manner.

As the drama unfolds, each of the women is afforded a brief solo spotlight to expand on these gloomy preoccupations, their interior monologues made exterior. But the play's most striking non-naturalistic device involves Mrs. Jarrett stepping out of the main action altogether into a darkened space front of stage, framed between two large illuminated rectangles. Here she recounts an increasingly surreal series of apocalyptic episodes involving floods, pestilence, cannibalism and biological horror. The subject matter is grim but also absurd, and Bassett's terrific performance is full of deadpan mirth, working better as dark comedy than serious political comment.

Even within its concise running time, Escaped Alone drifts a little. At one point the four women break into a spontaneous close-harmony version of the 1963 Crystals hit "Da Doo Ron Ron," a decision which may come from Macdonald rather than Churchill, who does not nominate a particular song in the text. This is a sweet and funny interlude, but somewhat random. The play's sketchy revelations about its protagonists serve little dramatic purpose, and arrive at no clear resolution. Mrs. Jarrett's dystopian monologues have no overt connection to the ensemble scenes, aside from as stylistic counterpoint. Churchill's intentions with all this tonal dissonance remain opaque, perhaps deliberately so.

Escaped Alone is a minor late work from a major dramatist, but it still stands out as one of Churchill's funniest plays to date, and heartening proof that she remains in full command of her pared-down technique at 77. Its message may be vague and insubstantial, but the all-female cast shares a warm, easy, engaging chemistry. Miriam Buether’s stage design also deserves mention here, a deceptively bright and colorful English garden with unsettling echoes of Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

Venue: Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London
Cast: Linda Bassett, Kika Markham, June Watson, Deborah Findlay

Director: James Macdonald
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Set designer: Miriam Buether

Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Costume designer: Lucy Walshaw
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Presented by Royal Court Theatre