The everyday nature of informal conversation between the four protagonists in Escaped Alone lulls the audience into a warm sense of relaxation within a setting of a sunlit garden. It then graphically breaks this realism, clearly influenced by Modernist writer Bertolt Brecht, by stepping through the fourth wall into a narrated dystopian future.
It is, without a doubt, a great pleasure to witness a quartet of women, all of retirement age, command the stage in the most engaging manner for just under an hour with precise and natural talent. It was Churchill’s intention for the actors to be around 70, so that the perspective of what has shaped them forms the basis of the recognisable dynamics of women at this point in their lives. The premise starts simply: Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) enters through a door in a garden fence where she joins three other women that she has ‘seen before.’ The environment she joins is a verdant setting, perfectly propped up by designer Miriam Buether. Inviting blue skies, a well-maintained lawn on which the garden chairs sit and flowers neatly in pots. The talk inevitably centres on the everyday: their grandchildren, cups of tea, their past, and commenting on the present one has ’whole worlds in your pocket.’ The dialogue is at ease, flowing between one interruption and another revealing the subjective nature of each individual, and yet maintains a collective experience of friendship.
The blue sky suddenly and without warning, is replaced by a black stage. As a duo of flickering lights thinly frame the stage, Bassett steps into a spotlight and delivers her first of seven monologues that chart the destruction of the planet as we know it and the consequences that the horror brings. The images voiced feel strange, eerie and yet uncannily familiar. These tales seem woven from past biblical times of plague, fire and burning hell and yet project forward to a world where the starving masses consume their breakfasts ’on iPlayer on their way to work’. The lights blink and Bassett is back in her garden chair basking in the sun discussing politics, society and the jobs that used to define them.
James Macdonald directs the women into razor-sharp performances where Vi (June Watson) reveals she ‘accidentally’ killed her husband. A gloom descends upon the garden as she delivers her account to the audience of feeling estranged from her son before the sun rises again and normality appears to resume. Equally unsettling is Sally’s neurotic nature over her fear of cats which manifests itself in a disgorging of her phobia by Deborah Findlay whose knuckles turn white as she clutches her pleated, long skirt. Kika Markman’s Lena confesses of agoraphobia, which was played out against discussions of ’parallel universes’, making her anxiety of unknown places harder to digest and her monologue ending with, ‘I’d rather hear nothing. It’s still just the same. It’s just the same. It’s the same,’ echoeing a Beckettian simplicity of character. Churchill has clearly mastered the art of pairing-back language to deliver a rich landscape using a minimal amount of words and her compassion for the world she explores is evident in her exploration of the possibility of losing it to a future of greed and strife.
This short but strangely sweet play depicts a future world of such horrific proportion that it is hard not to wince at some of the lines yet, thankfully, Churchill’s writing is punctuated with comically-timed humour. This allows for the examination of the culture of fear that seems to be building around our current world and consider what life may be like if we do not act in our own individual ways now.
Escaped Alone plays until the 12th March at The Royal Court Theatre where tickets start at £10. Box office: 020-7565-5000.