'Escaped Alone' review or 'Are we dunking in our tea?'

Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill
Royal Court Theatre, 2nd February 2016

Life often comes to mean something when we least expect it; a dream that feels disturbingly real, a slip of the tongue that holds some truth to it or a simple moment of happiness that sticks with you for a lifetime. This idea permeates Caryl Churchill’s latest peach of a play, ‘Escaped Alone’, which essentially involves four women chatting over tea in the garden, but has the whole of life bundled up in it. James Macdonald’s beautifully controlled production is a fierce sideways glance at life and the way in which joy and horror, banality and profundity, the beginning and end jostle side by side.

Miriam Buether’s set is gorgeous and clean and so intensely realistic (except for a delicate wire-mesh that frames the stage) that it feels very unrealistic indeed. We begin with the image of a fence that reaches across the stage, with a clear blue sky gleaming overhead. Linda Bassett’s Mrs Jarrett – a tough lady who looks like she takes stern walks before breakfast – hears her neighbours chatting behind the fence. She goes to join them (‘So I go in’) and the rest of the play unfolds in a garden packed with glistening grass, tumbling flowers and a rickety shed. It all feels archly believable yet weirdly crisp – especially that clean sky. It’s a set and a set-up that feels like it’s hiding something.

Mrs Jarrett joins a trio of older women (all over 70): the earnestly gushy Sally (Deborah Findlay), quiet Lena with hands clasped gently in her lap (Kika Markham) and the robust and rough-tongued Vi (June Watson). The three chat over tea and their dialogue is elliptical and choppy yet deeply thoughtful and rich with meaning too. Sentences, ideas and even songs are never completed and yet we begin to see the characters, lives and wealth of memories tied up in those choppy images, abrupt reflections and abandoned anecdotes. All the little things begin to mean something bigger.

Threaded in between these light but loaded chats are strange (and very funny) apocalyptic interludes. The lights snap shut, the orange wire framework flickers brightly and Bassett steps forward and describes the end of the world. She does this seven times in total and, each time, the apocalypse is bought about by human greed or ignorance. Rock paid for by senior executives tumbles down and crushes towns whole. Overflowing bath-tubs bring about floods; cancer spreads through money and obese people sell their flesh to the starving masses. There’s something awfully beautiful about these bleeding transitions between the garden-based banter and lonely, apocalyptic riffs. The garden scenes never quite finish: a thought that hasn’t landed, a song that hasn’t finished or a sigh that hasn’t quite run out of puff are left hanging in the air, hovering behind Bassett’s gorgeously graphic descriptions of the end of the world. The beautiful and banal aspects of life – the thirst for life and drive towards death - carry out a strange and delicate dance with each other.

Alongside these catastrophic imaginings are tumbling monologues – mini personal apocalypses – from each of the women. The action freezes (as it does during the deadly blackouts) and one woman lets rip with a torrent of words, which reveals something essential yet vulnerable about themselves; a revelation that is as life-affirming as it is destructive. Findlay’s character Sally lets fly with the most extraordinary riff about her fear of her cats and her face, voice and body surges into life. This fear is the making and destruction of Sally’s soul. When Kika Markham’s time comes, Lena’s beatific smile hardens as we learn about her lifelong struggle with depression; and when Vi finally has her moment, we begin to understand that fear and sorrow lurk behind her aggression. With each explosive revelation the sky turns a different colour; harder and darker, lighter and brighter, stark and frightening. And so we watch these souls gradually reveal the best and worst of themselves, as the sky quietly changes colour overhead and the night draws in.