REVIEW: Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Julie Forsyth narrates the Apocalypse in
Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Three women sit in a backyard, empty tea cups on the lawn by their feet, when a fourth woman – a neighbour, but an interloper – arrives and tries to fit in. It’s a Saturday afternoon ritual for these three ladies, who have known each other for years, talking about their favourite television shows, shops on the local high street, the weather, their families and parallel universes. It’s comfortable and mundane and there’s something scratching under the surface of their suburban lives, but they aren’t ready to acknowledge it yet.

Playing at just under an hour, Caryl Churchill’s play has a lot to say in an unconventional way – though not entirely surprising, if you’ve seen other works by her. This one felt very similar to her play Far Away, both engaging in its flights of surreality and sometimes maddeningly obtuse. The text does not allow the actors an easy time of it; the backyard discussions are poetic, not realistic and they demand a specific kind of rhythm.

Director Jenny Kemp, whose magnificent production of Top Girls at MTC in 2012 is something I still talk about, keeps the four actors perched on their cane chairs, only rotating them between scenes. It suggests, simply, ongoing conversations over weeks and months, but frustrates with the image being so static. The recurring blackouts and blinding lights used to disorient the audience quickly feels monotonous.

Each character is allowed their moment to shine in a soliloquy of their own, unearthing something troubling that they might not be truly honest about to their friends. These are the moments where the poetry of Churchill’s language really shines; much of the rest of the production suffers from very mannered performances.

Julie Forsyth is the stand-out on this stage – and in front of it, as the interloper with an inarticulate rage and as the narrator of an increasingly bizarre Apocalypse. Each time she interjects or is front-and-centre, I was captivated or amused or repulsed in a way that was missing from the rest of the show.

Something is happening out in the world that these privileged women seem to be protected from, left alone to debate minutiae while the world collapses around them. Perhaps they are not ignoring the end of the world itself, but they seem to be missing the warning signs.

Escaped Alone was first performed in 2016 and even though it was before the Brexit vote happened, this feels like a potent commentary on a class of people afraid of people climbing over their fences or finding their way through. It’s not even critical so much of these women, but of a society that affords them the luxury of worrying about each other, without really worrying about anyone else.