I’ve never laughed so much at an apocalypse. One of my problems with the Libertarian Communist community is the lack of sense of humour when it comes to revolution; and, unexpectedly, Churchill’s new play nourished my need for a kind of dystopian humour in the otherwise cheerless landscape of revolutionary politics. And I wasn’t expecting that from a play that looks like it’s about four mature women enjoying the late afternoon sunshine in a backyard.
Miriam Buether’s design is an enclosed, small, semi-tended garden – one that suggests a kind-of universality (a universality I normally find quite problematic). We’re doing the middle-England, lower middle-class (white) experience. It’s a bit below your Ayckbourn demographic, but the garden setting and the wash, kind of, in my opinion, references his plays’ designs and locations – I guess to depart from them and parody them through the Churchill aesthetic. There’s a shed and an untended bed and chairs scattered haphazardly on the grass (loved the grass). And we’ve got Sally (Deborah Findlay), Vi (June Watson) and Lena (Kika Markham) who are friends – well into their retirement – and passing the time and an unexpected, but not unwelcome, addition to the party in the form of Mrs J (played by the incredibly skilled Linda Bassett).
And they talk to each other – or at each other – in a characteristically Churchill anti-dialogue. Sometimes it feels like they’re sharing one monologue – finishing off sentences for each other. Sometimes it feels like it’s just key words, concrete nouns, sometimes the interlocutions carry more obvious meaning. Sometimes the conversations are abstract and philosophical. And sometimes they’re about the latest box-set. Even though it’s Churchill-speak, there’s something eerily realistic about the way these characters are interacting; they speak in short-hand just as we do with people we know. Sometimes there’s a jarring between the internality of the utterances and sometimes the women spar with each other, or sing with each other. Most of the time the conversation is playful and I found it very funny. Crucially, there’s a really fine line here that James Macdonald puts us on the right side of; we’re not invited to laugh at these women (as is often a problem with characters in this demographic), but, instead, to enjoy the absurdities of their shared parole and find joy in it. This fragmentary effect of the language is compounded by the way time works: it’s not certain if this is just one afternoon or many snippets of different ones.
What’s most notable about the entire experience, however, is that, at intervals throughout the action, these very domesticated moments cut out and are shut down by Christopher Shutt’s sound and Peter Mumford’s gorgeous trippy lighting which replaces the wash and we’re suddenly alone in the dark with Mrs J telling us about an apocalypse. This apocalypse is a parody and pastiche and mostly a comment, really, on technological determinism and the whole thing is hilarious and works beautifully with the paradox of the narrator and her costume.
I did really like this. But if there’s a problem here it’s the pretty dazzling reflection off of all those other theatrical mirrors. Mumford’s lighting is reminiscent of the design for Love and Information and the play itself is unmistakably Churchill’s with very notable similarities to Far Away and, of course, Top Girls – even in the blocking and then Blue Heart too and many others. I did wonder if Escaped Alone was in danger of being too reliant on territories Churchill previously establishes in her other plays (and this effect is compounded by the Royal Court’s previous productions). I did wonder if Escaped Alone would be flimsy without its reference points. But it’s an important play, I think, for two main reasons: it really forces us to alienate and examine, mostly through laughter, contemporary existence and its excesses and where it’s all going. And it’s pretty clear that this play is another important addition to works examining – and casting – older women. This week I’ve also had the pleasure of watching 45 Years and, even though these works are fairly incomparable, Charlotte Rampling’s character Kate in 45 Years shares similar concerns, and domestic roles, with the women in Escaped Alone. I hope works like these continue to emerge, even if they are a bit white and middle-class.