Caryl Churchill is certainly a prolific writer. Aged 77, she is still churning out plays, even if they’re often of the short one act variety. Her latest offering at The Royal Court, as part of their sixtieth birthday celebrations, is a prime example, lasting a mere sixty minutes. Directed by James Macdonald, Escaped Alone features four women drinking tea in the backyard belonging to one of them and discussing personal catastrophes and highlighting the epic kind.
As with all Caryl Churchill plays, Escaped Alone isn’t readily understandable. Nothing is explained and it’s up to the audience to work out what she is getting at. Puzzling, certainly, and not for those who want to watch a play with a beginning, middle and end. She is often named as one of Britain’s most significant living dramatists. That she has changed the language of theatre is beyond doubt, but I’m afraid I don’t always enjoy her work. One of her main artistic objectives is to dramatise the abuse of power and to explore sexual politics and feminist themes, which is all very admirable. The problem for me is that her non-naturalistic techniques often go way over my head and the point she is making isn’t hitting home.
This new play follows the usual path, but it does have its virtues, especially because it is written for a cast of four women within Churchill’s age range and the four actors involved are all exceptional. Whilst it is definitely an ensemble piece, the magnificent Linda Bassett as Mrs. Jarratt, who chances upon her friend’s tea party, is the one who gets to relate the various catastrophic world-wide happenings. The other three played by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson respectively solely discuss the personal. However each of these three break off from the chit-chat to deliver a monologue about an event which has had a catastrophic effect on their daily lives.
The play is very amusing in places and some of the major catastrophes are challenging to listen to but there is one very special moment that is worth the ticket price alone. This is when the four women break into a pitch perfect rendition of The Crystal’s Da Doo Ron Ron, complete with vocal backing music. It is utterly delightful and very unexpected.
What is slightly more jarring are the unfinished sentences delivered by each of the women. Fine in theory, but in practice it is imperative that each actor picks up on her cues super quickly to maintain fluidity. I was at the first night preview so I’m sure that this will happen as the run progresses.