Escaped Alone: Tea and Catastrophe on a Sunny British Afternoon
A lady turned to her husband in the audience and said, “It’s only 50 minutes long, and no intermission…Doesn’t seem worth it, coming all the way out here to Brooklyn, does it?”
With all due respect, this lady couldn’t be more wrong. Although lacking in minutes, Escaped Alone is a captivating exploration of friendship, isolation and catastrophe and even with its short running time, it is indeed satisfying. Caryl Churchill opens this Royal Court Theatre transplant with such a gleeful hello and entrance into her sunny backyard world that you happily go along with that character through the gate. Once through, you find yourself planted happily along side four ladies listening and observing to their world where they chat, reminisce, and seemingly engage lovingly with one another. But are they friends or just neighbors who are friendly? There seems to be a compassionate air surrounding the bunch; a knowing of each other, laced with a sweet and dry humor, although we never quite know how intimate they are with one another. The conversation, as directed by James Macdonald, represents both a fond engagement but also a protected disconnect where each secretly hide truths deep inside. Those truths are a place of escape and isolation, possibly due to fear, discomfort, or anger, but that place also gives them comfort and internal safety.
Interspersed throughout the backyard chatter, one of the ladies, a Mrs. Jarrett (the most wonderful Linda Bassett), finds herself in a black void somewhere between us and them. After a moment of startling neon framework flashes (spectacular lighting design by Peter Mumford and sound design by Christopher Shutt), Mrs. Jarrett shockingly describes a post apocalyptic world of death, destruction, starvation, and displacement. Etched in details both graphically horrific and ridiculous, Bassett delivers these scenarios with an impeccable seriousness and straightforwardness, but also, sneaking onto the side of her face is a crooked smile to accompany some of the more outlandish claims. It’s a magnificent piece of theatrical engagement by Bassett that is disconcerting, perplexing, and thoroughly exciting.
Is this her internal sanctuary where she finds distraction and pleasure away from the generic chatter of the real world where intimacy is faked and friendships are superficial? Does she feel safe in this gaggle of ladies? Or something else? The other three ladies, all impeccable in their delivery and demeanor (Deborah Findlay as Sally; Kika Markham as Lena; June Watson as Vi) seem lovely and kind, but each have a moment of subtle conflict with another. More importantly, each one has a internal disclosure and confessional that is both powerfully real and exposing. The piece holds us tightly. In the lighter moments (i.e. the sight of these four coaxing each other through the singing of an old classic song is priceless) we join in their backyard reverie (a perfect set design by Miriam Buether), but it is in the darker moments where the richness in their vulnerability, defenselessness, and ruination are the most thrilling to witness.
What is Churchill trying to tell us as we flip back and forth from sunny backyard chatter to descriptive apocalyptic scenarios? There is a level of escapism that seeps through all the dialogue, especially the internal personal soliloquies, when we get the sense that all these ladies, although pleasant enough, hold a deeper darker version of themselves. They have all experienced different versions of private ruination that they are still struggling to cope with. This is especially true for Mrs. Jarrett although hers may be harder to pin down. The glimpse inside her unsaid chatter is almost as scary to behold as the future she describes inside the black void, although it is less vivid. These ladies take great comfort from their backyard chatter, just as much as we do observing them. Churchill seems to be saying that in the end we are all still alone, barely escaping our personal and private catastrophes. When Mrs. Jarrett finally bids adieu, we also must say our goodbyes. It’s joyous in that moment, and we owe that to the delicious work of all, especially Bassett, but the seeds of distress linger in our minds, giving us plenty to chew on as we make our way out into the darkness of the night, with the others, but alone in our thoughts.