Escaped Alone, Bristol Old Vic

PLAYWRIGHT Caryl Churchill is, according to Wikipedia, “known for dram­a­tising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes.”

She is also 78 years old.

The only stage direction she gives for her latest work, Escaped Alone, is that the four women who make up the cast are “at least 70.”

Directed by James Macdonald, after its highly praised original run at the Royal Court last year and a journey to New York, the play is at Bristol until Sunday 26th March.

Three women sit in a garden. This is a familiar occurence and they know each other and their conversations well enough to end each others’ sentences, or not to need to end them at all.  They have seen another woman in the neighbourhood. As the play opens, she, Mrs J, peers through the fence at them, and they invite her to join them. The “action” of the play revisits the quartet on various summer afternoons.

Over the course of almost 60 minutes they reveal various aspects of their lives, already known to the trio but not the newcomer.  But it is she who unveils the terrors and horrors of the 21st world to the audience, stepping out of the tea party and into her head – or maybe into a documentary commentary – framed by flashing lights

Is this an encapsulation of our fears of dementia …  of world disintegration …  of loneliness and isolation?  All or none of the above?

What at first seems like a gentle chat between four slightly scatty old birds grips the heart and the brain.

As Mrs J makes her peculiar links between the worlds of reality and imagination, images of war and pestilence join those of cannibalism, old people, GM food and  a famous kitten. The kitten is introduced with one of Linda Bassett’s famous beatific smiles, a shocking contrast to the subject matter of her soliloquies.

A regular interpreter of Caryl Churchill’s work, this versatile actress – Nurse Crane in Call the Midwife, Miss July in Calendar Girls, Ella Kahn in East is East, Queenie in Lark Rise, etc – is at the height of her powers as Mrs J.

Deborah Findlay is retired doctor Sally, Kika Markham the agoraphobic Lena and June Watson the hairdresser Vi. These women are so recognisable, so normal, but each hides a dread secret and takes the audience on a journey into fear and obsession far more terrifying than any number of horror movies.

In these uncertain days, sales of dystopian science fiction are soaring. Those books that some of us regarded as fanciful nonsense are now seen as prescient prophecy.

Caryl Churchill offers a chilling snapshot of a bleak future, all dressed in summer flowers and tea and biscuits.


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