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Escaped Alone, Royal Court Theatre, review: ‘A half cock of a night’

PUBLISHED: 14:01 05 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:23 05 February 2016

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill. Picture: Johan Persson

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill. Picture: Johan Persson

JOHAN PERSSON

The brevity of Caryl Churchill’s latest work makes it hard to discover anything about its central female quartet, says Bridget Galton.

A play for four actresses stipulated as being “all at least 70” by one of our greatest playwrights was a tantalising prospect.

But Caryl Churchill, who in Top Girls staged a dinner party for five historic women and in Cloud Nine created cross-dressing Victorians,was never going to make her old ladies discuss varicose veins and hot flushes.

While Escaped Alone passes the Bechdel test of female portrayal in drama – a rare mention of a husband comes in a tale about knifing him to death – Churchill’s late life passion for brevity means we discover so little about this quartet in the 50 minutes it feels an opportunity wasted.

In a cosy suburban garden, four women sip tea and swap gossip in dense, overlapping, unfinished sentences that range from quantum physics to hats and modern life.

Neighbour Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) periodically steps out of the sunlight to deliver monologues of vividly imagined apocalypse and hellish survival; of rockfalls, famine, floods and chemical leaks that cause miscarriages and birth deformities.

The bleakly satirical fantasy of a possible future namechecks reality TV, immigration and corporate greed; where “gas masks are available on the NHS with a three month waiting time and privately in a range of colours” and “smartphones are distributed by charities so the dying could watch cooking”. Her companions have their own problems: Deborah Findlay’s retired doctor Sally has a cat phobia; Kika Markham’s Lena agoraphobia. We never discover why, or perhaps it’s linked to a general disconnect with modern life and having seen too much.

It is only when June Watson’s Vi describes the unbridgeable gulf with her 12-year-old son while serving six years for killing his father, that we are offered more conventionally engaging drama.

You can admire Churchill’s uncompromising premise and ability to imply worlds in unspoken words, but it’s an odd half cock of a night out.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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