Review: Caryl Churchill's ESCAPED ALONE at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court

Caryl Churchill is undeniably one of the greatest playwrights of our time, right up there with the likes of David Hare and Tony Kushner. However, what Churchill does so perfectly in comparison is that she manages to give a beautifully ironic and dark twist to relevant and topical situations in a completely unexpected and original way; Escaped Alone is a brilliant example of that.

I missed Escaped Alone in its sold out season last year at the Royal Court so I was delighted to see that it was to be making a return there this January before heading to New York and then onto a UK tour. I didn't have much of an idea as to what the play was about apart from the fact that it centred around four older women and only lasts for about 50 minutes. The story of the play surprised me but amused me at the same time: fragmented conversation in a garden between four older female friends, taking place over the course of an entire summer, talking about their lives so far. The fragmented conversation confused me at first, but Churchill's intentions soon became apparent.

From left to right: Bassett, Findlay, Markham and Watson in Churchill's Escaped Alone

The days in the garden are separated and punctuated by bizarre personal monologues. Linda Bassett's character Mrs Jarrett starts the play by walking past the garden fence and spotting the other three women inside, peeking through the gap in the gate and being invited in. Every now and then. the character steps out of the scene into a stage set up like the one pictured at the top of this review to give a retrospective recount of the apocalyptic world that we are led to believe that these characters live in. It's dark but also hilarious in a way that confused me and charmed me at the same time. Eventually, the other women started to have similar episodes towards the end of the play where the other actresses would freeze and the woman in question would expand on a phrase she quipped in conversation so the audience can understand the deeper meaning. All in all, I found it remarkable that Churchill managed to pack so much into such a short play.

While the story was bizarre and hard to follow, I did still find it enjoyable, but hindsight had me questioning whether or not that was just because I admire Caryl Churchill's work and whether or not I fear speaking out against it. After all, this play has had fantastic reviews both times it has been staged by most outlets and I have liked almost everything else that I have read of Churchill's, so why wouldn't I like this? My only question I pose about this piece is why did Churchill think it was worthy of writing about. I found it refreshing to see four older ladies take centre stage as the entire cast of the play, but I'm intrigued to know why fragmented conversation about a post-apocalyptic world was the conversation that Churchill assigned to them. It's not to say that the play was unenjoyable, but I just question the piece's purpose as a whole.

Mrs Jarrett is invited in for a cup of tea at the start of Escaped Alone

Speaking of the cast, the four of them are sublime. June Watson plays Vi, a woman who killed her husband many moons ago and served a short stint of time in prison for her crime. Her character was my personal favourite, always providing the conflict and humour in the situation. I'm also a massive fan of Deborah Findlay from other plays I have loved her in like The Children - also at the Royal Court - and she plays Sally, a woman who has a passionate fear of cats. As previously mentioned, the fantastic Linda Bassett plays a quirky Mrs Jarrett, while Kika Markham plays the timid Lena. The show would be nothing without this incredible cast of women and they play a convincing and warming team of friends brilliantly.

While Churchill's latest play is confusing at times, it is a perfect bite-size chunk of her work for those who have never experienced it before, or for long-term fans of hers as well. The play may be easier to understand after reading it in detail, but to see it on stage with this fantastic cast is what makes it as good as people make it out to be.

Escaped Alone is currently playing at BAM in Brooklyn, New York with tickets available here. The show then returns for a UK tour with tickets available here.

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