The Royal Court is sixty this year and what better way to kick off the celebrations than a new main stage work by Caryl Churchill, who at 77 is still its most agelessly inventive and protean dramatist? The new play has been touted as her first “full-length” work in some time, but running at 55 minutes, it is only fractionally longer than Here We Go, her searching but critically divisive triptych about death that premiered at the National last November. In Escaped Alone, she continues to operate in her late mode of massive suggestion through minimalist means. The divide between the seemingly humdrum and the horrific keeps collapsing here in a piece which vividly juxtaposes the chit-chat of four seventysomething women enjoying each other's company in a sunny suburban garden with extreme visions of personal and planetary catastrophe.
The proceedings open with deceptive simplicity. The cheerfully nosy Mrs J (excellent Linda Bassett) spots three acquaintances on the other side of a fence and can't resist popping through it to join them for a cup of tea in the small backyard. The four of them natter about the normal, everyday things: grandchildren, the TV series they're watching, the local shops, new technology (“whole worlds in your pocket”). But poking through the elliptical banalities, there's evidence of a parallel universe of pain and desolation. June Watson's ex-hairdresser, Vi, killed her husband, it emerges, and spent six years in prison. Deborah Findlay's retired medical worker, Sally, has an obsessive fear of cats. The agoraphobia of Lena (Kika Markham) makes a trip to Tesco almost as daunting a proposition as a jaunt to Japan.
James McDonald's superb cast beautifully negotiates the shifts between intimate small talk, moments of comically awkward failure to avoid the unmentionable and the bleakly intense passages of private reverie. At one point, for the sheer mischievous pleasure of it, they launch into a spontaneous rendition of “Da Doo Run Run”. Churchill's treatment of these women is infused with humour, warmth and precise observation. But it's as though specks of glass have been sneaked into a pair of comfortable old carpet slippers. As well as being afforded those glimpses of inner torment, we are regularly swept away from the garden to a black void with a pulsing, electrified frame where Mrs J, in a manner that is more head-shaking, gossipy neighbour than Cassandra or Book of Job, delivers bizarre reports of global horror.
There's black, fantastical comedy in these apocalyptic scenarios of hunger, fire, famine and flood. Churchill jumbles up our fears, fads and the lines we fake between man-made and natural calamity and pushes the result to a point of grotesque absurdity. By doing so, she makes the mad, promiscuous prophecies sound more plausible rather than han less. The great hunger, we're told, began when eighty per cent of the food was diverted to television programmes. “Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking”. Far-fetched or discomfitingly close to home? A rich birthday present to the Royal Court.
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