Reviews West End & Central Published 30 January 2017

Review: Escaped Alone at the Royal Court

Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs ⋄ 21 Jan - 11 Feb 2017

Locates the absurd within a terrible bleakness: Lee Anderson reviews the return of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone to the Royal Court.

Lee Anderson
Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson.

Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson.

On a sunny afternoon, in a suburban back garden, the end of days is being talked about over tea and biscuits. In Caryl Churchill’s elliptical, unsettling and darkly comic play – on the cusp of a regional and US tour – four elderly women meet to reminisce about the good old days and contemplate the looming apocalypse.

When nosy neighbor Mrs. Jarret (Churchill stalwart, Linda Basset) pays a visit to Sally (Deborah Findlay), what begins as seemingly idle chitchat soon mutates into dread-inducing prophesies of planetary disaster. Churchill’s ability to locate cosmic disorder within quiet domesticity pervades much of her work – from Far Away to Love and Information – and it returns here through the voices of an all-female ensemble.

As the four women sit and sun themselves beneath a cloudless blue-sky, Churchill captures the rhythms of their everyday speech with her characteristic wit and attention to detail. Indeed, the particular manner in which the four friends end each others sentences, cut themselves short and loop back around again is so carefully observed that Churchill draws us into the unfolding tapestry of their past lives.

While the ladies recall old times, sing songs, tell jokes, gossip about television and occasionally erupt into minor episodes of bickering, their conversation is threaded through with violence, paranoia and fear. Each of the women’s private grief is unpacked through a series of monologues that break through the web of conversation and temporarily shatter their chirpy and carefree exteriors.

James MacDonald’s production takes care to hone in on each of the interlocutors’ backstories, eking out the details in Churchill’s writing and plunging us into their internal neurosis, grief and pain through a series of monologues: Sally imagines feline invaders prowling the corners of her house, Lena’s (Kika Markham) agoraphobia makes even the most casual visit to Tesco’s a monumental struggle, while Vi’s (June Watson) murder of her abusive husband and estrangement from her son reveals a lonely and isolated soul.

Escaped Alone also works by contrasts. In choosing to juxtapose the fond reminiscences of four friends with the horrors of the apocalypse, Churchill reveals the way in which violence can lurk in the corner of social niceties or fester like a sore beneath the surface of polite conversation. Designer Miriam Buether’s pastoral rendering of a typical suburban garden – enclosed by a fence and resplendent greenery – conjures the quaint and serene ‘everyday-ness’ of the setting, one that sits very much at odds with the ominous visions that lie beyond this fenced-off patch of land.

Churchill has always located the absurd within the terrible bleakness of her increasingly dystopian stage-worlds. This time around, it’s in Mrs. Jarrett’s speeches that Churchill’s vision of a civilisation in free-fall gathers pace. Taking place in semi-darkness and punctuating the four-way conversation, Mrs. Jarret steps out the frame to deliver her Cassandra-like prophesies to the audience. Natural disasters, mass-starvation, technological collapse: Mrs. Jarret becomes the messenger for various possible futures – all hopeless, all desolate, but all tempered by a gallows humor that allows for a degree of levity amidst the bleakness.

However, despite its ingenious set-up and excellent ensemble cast, Escaped Alone never quite achieves the slow burn feeling of dread it sets out to. Perhaps with the world beyond the theatre descending into such a perilous state of upheaval, we’re no longer afforded the distance such an atmosphere requires. Nevertheless, Escaped Alone continues Churchill’s late-run of minimalist milestones, and provides a wholly original vision of a world on the brink of devastation.

Escaped Alone is on until 11 February 2017 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details. 

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

Review: Escaped Alone at the Royal Court Show Info


Directed by James MacDonald

Written by Caryl Churchill

Cast includes Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson

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