Economical. Every so often there’s a word that describes a show so completely. Perhaps the most common is ‘tradition’, used in the opening number in Fiddler on the Roof. Now, there are concerns from some quarters that there aren’t that many parts for older women actors, because there aren’t many parts written for them to play in the first place. Escaped Alone redresses that imbalance somewhat by putting four characters of pensionable age centre stage.
While the script can be ploughed through quickly enough (the Royal Court won’t sell you a programme, but they will sell you a script!), it takes some skilled acting to bring it to life in an appealing way, otherwise it comes across as too disjointed in the various changes of mood and tone. James Macdonald’s cast does not disappoint in a dazzling mixture of wit, polite conversation and tales of dystopian woe. Each of the four actors is sublime – why can’t more plays be like this? Every line enunciated properly, always projected but never shouted.
The darker moments, in the form of monologues from Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett), are ludicrous enough to be chuckled at in places, without making the audience too uncomfortable, but are broadly plausible in a futuristic era, if things are really taken to extremes.
The afternoon tea that Mrs Jarrett finds herself invited to is hosted by Sally (Deborah Findlay), quite a charming lady, whose other guests are Lena (Kika Markham), because there’s always one who is a little bit shy, and Vi (June Watson), because there’s always one who is a little bit gregarious. Plot-wise, that’s about it: it might have otherwise have been called Mrs Jarrett Goes To Tea. It’s in the conversation where the interest lies – the devil, as it were, is in the detail. We do get to know each character very well, a major contributing factor in maintaining audience attention here.
The dialogue is poetic in places, and other times incredibly naturalistic. Some sentences are left unfinished – these are, after all, characters that have known each other for decades – and it’s what isn’t said that sometimes ‘speaks’ louder than what is. The narrative crams a remarkable number of topics in under an hour, and yet the play’s steady pace means the show never feels rushed. There’s even time for an entire song (not telling you which one).
Despite some seemingly banal dialogue, Caryl Churchill’s script never fails to be tactful, stating opinions without preaching them. The set is warm and welcoming when it needs to be, and yet bare and black when it needs to be. There’s something quite Pinter-esque about sitting through an over-all-too-soon play and wondering if I’d actually seen anything substantial, or if this was just a pensioners’ edition of Loose Women. A fellow reviewer had a better analogy, likening Escaped Alone to Last of the Summer Wine.
But even that doesn’t explain its depth in a less-is-more approach. Therein lies this play’s beauty, too. You can’t really define this play, because it’s about life but it’s about death, it’s about the past and it’s about the future, it’s amusing and it’s surprising. An intriguing play with much food for thought.
Review by Chris Omaweng
“I’m walking down the street and there’s a door in the fence open and inside there are three women I’ve seen before.”
Three old friends and a neighbour. A summer of afternoons in the back yard. Tea and catastrophe.
Caryl Churchill returns to the Royal Court with this new play directed by James Macdonald. Design by Miriam Buether, lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Christopher Shutt.
by Caryl Churchill
21st January – 12th March 2016
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Age guidance 14+
Running time: 50 minutes