FringeReview UK 2017
Churchill’s recent masterpiece Escaped Alone returns to the Royal Court Downstairs a year after its premiere with director James Macdonald, the original cast and designer Marianne Buether, lit by Peter Mumford. Till February 11th then on tour: Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Cambridge Arts Theatre and Bristol Old Vic (ends March 26th).
James Macdonald again directs Churchill’s recent masterpiece Escaped Alone returning it to the Royal Court Downstairs a year after its premiere with original cast and designer Marianne Buether, lit by Peter Mumford. That’s in itself rare enough: the Court doesn’t tend to repeat plays.
Churchill’s plays haven’t just pared down (as older dramatists and poets can) but accelerated over the past twenty years: linguistically more elliptical, incomplete statements snapped off at inference point, compressed scenarios lasting ten seconds, ninety second plays. This reached its neural apogee in Love and Information in 2012, where the play’s subject generated a lightning apotheosis of this approach.
Escaped Alone again marks a shift first seen just weeks earlier in Here We Go (2015) but further developed here in this deceptively cosy scenario of four women chatting in deckchairs on a succession of summer afternoons in Sally’s garden – Buether’s naturalistic set with varying blue skies, framed by a sudden void. Elliptical sentences remain, but characters settle: unnerving layers peel off them in this everyday talk of tea and catastrophe.
Apocalypse too returns and this time the seven plagues infold the four elements, adding chemical and assorted terminae in punctuated prophesies from Linda Bassett –echoing the Dantean second scene of Here We Go but as infernal comedy.
A sitting comedy from Churchill? Bassett’s magnificent Mrs Jarrett peeps through a door spying three neighbours, is invited in. Four women over ‘all at least 70’ Churchill stipulates, discuss everything from iPods to quantum: ‘particles and waves I can take but after that’ says Vi (June Watson, fantastically flyaway ex-hairdresser with stellar curiosity) who once had a kitchen, knife, and husband and lost the lot.
Deborah Findlay’s youthfully romancing Sally, a retired doctor, witnessed it all: ‘I didn’t tell it quite how it was… because.. what he was like… she’s my friend of course’ she demurs. Sally in the first monologue reveals a terror of cats slinking into her house to hide (for instance) in matchboxes or suddenly behind her – Findlay’s suite of flinches both comic and suddenly, not.
Sally also reminds Vi after she deliberately lets cat references out of the bag ‘how unpleasant you can be’; and lets out her own catty as it were later. Again tensions between dimensioned characters are ground in, recalling earlier Churchill. Sally’s also the one ‘in love’ she’s told and casually spills grandchildren to the others as much as she shuts away her cats. It’s a gradation of loss: Sally’s cats are the least of it.
Churchill layers the monologues, so the most intimate devastation is Lena’s: ‘it’s better to be in an empty room because there’s fewer things to mean nothing… I’d rather hear something bad than something good. I’d rather hear nothing.’ It recalls Claxton’s wanting ‘to hear and say nothing’ at the end of Light Shining from Buckinghamshire though this time it’s not a quote. Kika Markham underlines Lena’s agoraphobia as tellingly as the parallel-universe-stepping Bassett.
Though when Lena wistfully desires travel to Japan it’s Sally who ripostes ‘get to Tesco first’ and Vi who reprimands Sally who claims it was a joke. It’s this shifting plane of loyalties that etch these characters deeper than Churchill generally attempts in her telegraphic later style. Watson’s robust conclusions as Vi mask the deepest traumas dealt with the most pragmatically, in the final monologue. Vi confides she can’t enjoy kitchens now.
There’s so much more to relish and a year only freshens this joyful prod at sheer oblivion. A disquisition on birds throws up: ‘eagles are fascist’/’America has the eagle’/’well’ which exploded on the audience this year with terrible laughter. In just a year Churchill’s proved more prophet than perhaps she wished, rendering off-handers on drones and G W Bush’s ‘how many is a brazilian’ almost quaint.
Perhaps the play’s solar plexus sneaks between two of Bassett’s set-pieces: the quartet spontaneously erupt in an exquisite and touching rendition of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ down to the diminuendos.
Conversings and asides are punctured the seven times Mrs J steps out of the sunny naturalistic frame to zizzing red neon on black: Miriam Buether’s set at this point almost reprises The Father. Cassandra now, Bassett prophesies a menu of Armageddons: by earth where executives bury humanity in earth-slides, who scrabble like rats mutating over decades into diverse humanoids; floodwater, originally ‘a campaign to punish the thirsty’, chemical poisoning, famine (80% food diverted to reality TV shows, and wincingly ‘the obese sold slices of themselves till hunger drove them to eat their own rashers’) air (‘wind.. soon turned heads inside out… Pets rained from the sky. A kitten became famous’), plague ‘when children drank sugar developed from monkeys’, firestorms started by children and politicians. Bassett is both seraphic and suddenly human, twitching at a touch of plague.
Details in their extremity turn comic – that kitten arriving just after Sally’s feline phobia. Churchill picks up such a conversational gambit, grilling it through Bassett’s casual devastation, for instance a tie-up of six years in Vi’s life with Sally’s vixenish riposte to Vi on Vi’s ‘knock knock… Dr’: ‘that’s a six year old’s joke’. It’s an intricately joke-plotted play.
Bassett’s personal monologue almost closes the drama, just ‘terrible rage terrible rage’ intensifying in hallucinated repetition twenty-five times to a Lear-like apotheosis of its own.
Bassett’s throw-away finale takes the protean Churchill to yet another dimension: disjunct comedy stepping out into the void. That it’s one of her most solidly realised plays of recent years – paced to a pin-drop by director James Macdonald, acted to hallucinatory perfection – makes that step all the more funny and, even for Churchill, devastating. Do we have to wait to her eightieth in 2018 to proclaim her our greatest living playwright?