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Escaped Alone review at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London – ‘cosy and alien’

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton

What am I looking at? Four women, all of a certain age and wearing comfortable clothing, are sitting on chairs in a suburban garden. There are fences. There is ivy and a shed. The sky above them is clear and blue.

What am I listening to? The language is similarly suburban, on the surface at least, but at the same time it has a familiar staccato quality, stop-starting and abrupt. Each word is carefully placed. Like a stone. Like something with weight to it.

Because Caryl Churchill does not waste words. She uses them like tools, minimally punctuated, ready to detonate. The effect is both natural and anything but. This quartet of women talk about their grandchildren, they chit-chat about the past, about old money, about shillings and pence, but they also talk about drones and microbes, modern technology, worlds within worlds within worlds. One of them has killed somebody and spent time in prison. There’s something both cosy and alien about their conversations.

Though it’s been sold as Churchill’s first full-length play in some time, at 50 minutes this is only a shade longer than Here We Go, her emotionally complex triptych about death which premiered at the National Theatre last year. This is, in some ways, a lighter piece of writing, it’s certainly funnier, but it’s also a play into which a pot of black ink has been upended.

There are these monologues which poke through the text like fingers or pillars. They jut and disrupt. It’s architectural, the way they are placed. Director James Macdonald uses the same kind of techniques that he employed in his production of Churchill’s Love and Information in 2012. There are all these sudden flips and switches, Miriam Buether’s sun-washed garden repeatedly dropping away to be replaced by a black square framed by flickering lights, a void, a pit in which one of the women stands and talks about disease and chemical spills and social breakdown and famine and fire and the end of all things. These interludes are disquieting but also more than a little absurd, funnier than they have any right to be.

They’re delivered by the incomparable Linda Bassett, excellent as ever, a magnetic presence, who here comes across as a mixture of oracle and the very best kind of aunt.

She’s accompanied by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, all also superb – it’s a pleasure seeing the stage dominated, owned, by older women. They each get their own speech to deliver, with Findlay in particular revelling in her repulsion of cats, shuddering.  The play as a whole is hard to get a grip on, it wriggles, it eels around the stage. But it’s also hypnotic. And kind of comfy. And distinctly odd. And sharp. Like an M&S cardigan with nails imbedded in it.

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Verdict
Pared down, architectural and often surprisingly amusing new play by Caryl Churchill
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