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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Directed by consummate Churchill interpreter James Macdonald, this brief comedy-drama alternates between scenes of dialogue among the four women and extravagant bursts of apocalyptic monologue. The monologues are delivered by Linda Bassett, another veteran Churchill interpreter, who manages a bravura performance without upstaging her fellow cast members.
Long-time friends Sally (Deborah Findlay), Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson) are — like Churchill — members of the generation who, in youth, be-bopped to bubblegum tunes such as "Da Do Ron-Ron." That 1963 hit by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector, performed by the cast a cappella (and with exemplary musicianship), constitutes an entire scene in this sui generis theater piece.
Sally is a retired National Health Service physician (or, perhaps, nurse). Lena, who used to work in an office, occupies the same social stratum as Sally, somewhere above the middle of the middle class. And Vi, a former hairdresser, is a few rungs down the social ladder from the other two.
In all the group scenes of Escaped Alone, the three women are gathered for afternoon tea in Sally's back garden, without costume change or variation in seating arrangement. Miriam Buether's realistic set design, with its garden fence and tool shed, lends verisimilitude to the proceedings. Though the actors are stationary throughout, Peter Mumford's skillful lighting indicates that successive episodes occur at different times of year.
At the play's outset, the three friends become aware that Mrs. Jarrett (Bassett), a nosey neighbor, is spying on their festivities. They greet her with extreme English courtesy that conceals utmost disdain. In a flash, the interloper has insinuated herself in the klatch, drinking tea, posing questions in distinctly working-class parlance, and periodically interjecting her opinions in the colloquy.
At first the teatime conversation seems anodyne and desultory. The women debate how their village has altered over the years, and gossip about what's going on among friends and family. Gradually, though, the talk accelerates, becoming urgent and pointed. Vi has suffered domestic violence (her story holds some surprises, so no spoilers here). Sally has a crippling aversion to cats and is haunted by recollections of having overlooked clues about a patient's dire medical condition. Lena is reclusive and agoraphobic, though she resists admitting it.
As with many of Churchill's scripts, Escaped Alone, is elliptical, even cryptic, on the page. Macdonald and the four actors find rich meaning and vast emotion in the interstices of the playwright's lines. They don't foist anything on the text but follow clues regarding the agonies of existence that are nestled in Churchill's spare dialogue and in its subtext. They draw comedy (and sometimes wit) from the bankruptcy of the characters' language and the inevitability of their miscommunication.
The play's most electric moments belong to Bassett's Mrs. Jarrett, who exorcises deep-seated rage in eight bizarre speeches. All these interludes are delivered in an abstract environment created by Buether and Mumford to isolate them from the scenes in the yard. The monologues are preceded by blackouts, followed by startling displays of red lights and weird techno-sounds engineered by sound designer Christopher Shutt. Alone in the spotlight, Bassett speaks directly to the audience to describe a world in tumult.
"The hunger began when eighty percent of food was diverted to tv programmes," Mrs. Jarrett reports. "Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking."
The scenario outlined is pure Theater of the Absurd. In Bassett's hands, it's outrageously comic, yet terrifying, as the apocalyptic finale of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. "Cars were traded for used meat," Mrs. Jarrett says. "Children fell asleep in class and didn't wake up. The obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers."
Is Mrs. Jarrett relaying the plot of a dystopian television series (all the women in Sally's back garden are devoted to their television serials); or is her overactive imagination at work . . . or is Caryl Churchill exploring the science-fictional terrain of writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood? No matter the answers to those questions, Bassett brings poignance and a remarkable credibility to lines that seem ludicrous when encountered as bald text.
As an epigraph for Escaped Alone, Churchill has chosen a chilling quotation from the Book of Job: "I only am escaped alone to tell thee." That's the repeated cry of the messengers who arrive in quick succession to rub Job's nose in details of the slaughter of his children, servants, and flocks. (It's also the epigraph of the final section of Melville's Moby Dick.)
Churchill, author of Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and Mad Forest (among other innovative plays), famously avoids covering the same dramatic ground more than once; but themes recur throughout her canon. In line with the feminism of the playwright's earlier work, the four characters of this play are witnesses who've escaped alone to testify to the horrors and injustices, public and private, that women have endured in the era between World War Two and now. In a larger sense, the play, at least as performed by the extraordinary Royal Court cast, is a Rorschach image ready to reflect any horrors or injustices festering in a spectator's imagination on a particular day as he or she contemplates this stunning production.
To read Lizzie Liveridge's review when it played in London last year
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Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill
Director: James Macdonald
Cast: Linda Bassett (Mrs. Jarrett); Deborah Findlay (Sally); Kika Markham (Lena); June Watson (Vi)
Set Designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Running Time: 50 minutes
Presented by The Royal Court Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street
From 2/15/17; opened 2/16/17; closing 2/26/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at February 15th press performance
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