Review: Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at Cambridge Arts Theatre - a masterclass in performance

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill, , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Mi

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill, , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/ - Credit: Archant

This is a magnificient piece of theatre. Escaped Alone has been reviewed as a puzzling play. I don’t think it is. Four women who have reached their 70s sit in a sunny garden and reminisce. They don’t finish their sentences and they talk to themselves rather than each other. They would be quite safe conversations if it wasn’t revealed immediately that Vi has killed her husband with a kitchen knife and served time for it.

The rest of the dialogue is about which shops used to be which before they changed and how much 17 shillings and sixpence is in new money, television programmes they’ve seen, that kind of thing.

But then the cosy set with a blue sky and a lawn and a fence covered in ivy suddenly changes.

Mrs Jarrett (played to perfection by Linda Bassett) stands at the front of stage against pitch black darkness to describe the future, a post apocolyptic world People are living underground, eating rats, eating each other. While some people are starving, the fat ones slice off pieces of themselves to sell - or to nibble at. Some die of thirst, others of drinking the water. People go insane at different rates.

Despite the material, potentially dull in the garden, horrific in Mrs Jarrett’s monologues, there is plenty of humour in this play and the performances are all a masterclass in delivery.

While each woman appears to have a genteel existence (apart from Vi who can’t cook meat now because she finds it difficult slicing it up) each has her personal torment and each has a monologue to describe it which each actress turns into a tour de force.

June Watson as Vi starts her piece gently so that it doesn’t feel like a stand alone piece at first, just a natural part of the conversation, which makes it so memorable. She can’t bear kitchens any more. Even the one she lives in now, years later, reminds her, you see. “I can’t love a kitchen, I can’t love a kitchen any more, if you have killed someone in a kitchen, you’re not going to love that kitchen.”

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Sally (Deborah Findlay) has a horror of cats and her description of how all pervading the animals are and her fear of finding them, listing every place, every possible place, every conceivable place, in the house one might be, is reminiscent of one of Samuel Becket’s most difficult speeches and is delivered with breathtaking passion and precision.

Lena (Kika Markham) is the one with depression. She can’t get out but she has got herself into Sally’s garden. They congratulate her for that. She talks in her solo piece about life in the office. “It was half past three and all this time later, it’s twenty-five to four.”

Linda Bassett’s Mrs Jarrett has seven break out pieces, standing in the darkness telling us about the end of the world. The first begins: “Four hundred thousand tons of rock paid for by senior executives split off the hillside to smash through the roofs, each fragment onto the designated child’s head.”

The second: “First the baths overflowed as water was deliberately wasted in a campaign to punish the thirsty.” The third: “The chemicals leaked through cracks in the money.”

It makes sense in the way that nonsense makes sense in a dream - and then makes a different kind of sense when you unravel it.

The play cleverly balances the mundane with the absurd, the safe - four women singing a sixties pop song - with terrifing images. The pace is very fast. The performances are exemplary and the play is brave and unforgetable. Escaped Alone is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 18.