Escaped Alone (now playing at the Royal Court Theatre) evinces Churchill writing at her most eloquent and politically charged finest. Not since Top Girls in 1982 has she given us an all-female cast: here, four women in their seventies gather in a sunny garden to gossip over afternoon tea. But this fifty-minute drama brings a whole new meaning to over-the-garden-wall, neighbourly tittle-tattle. Our guide into the women-only garden space is Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett). She happens to be out walking on the street, so she tells us, when, through an open door in a garden fence, she spies three women whom she has seen before. The fence, which stretches across the proscenium (an initial, visual barrier to what lies behind), is removed to reveal Mrs J. joining the others, at once immersed in this female-friendly space cast in light conversational tones that are laced with dark undercurrents, personal fears, and anxieties. Minutes of conversation later, however, and light gives way to dark: Mrs J. has stepped out of this all-too bright, hide-away and entered a ‘death space’ from whence she speaks of global destruction.
Highly reminiscent of the dark tunnel of death from which an elderly man (Patrick Godfrey) ruminated on life past in Churchill’s Here We Go (National Theatre, November-December 2015; see dramaqueensreview.com/2015/12/15/here-we-go-caryl-churchill), the blacked out stage framed by dual rows of glowing lights in Escaped Alone serves as the space of apocalyptic reckoning. Seven times in seven monologues, Mrs J. appears as the solitary, surviving storyteller of a world destroyed by man-made disasters. Skriker-like, she tells of ecological damage caused by human greed: ‘Four hundred thousand tons of rock paid for by senior executives split off the hillside to smash through the roofs, each fragment onto the designated child’s head’. Again and again, her narration returns to the theme of global capitalism’s orchestrated destruction of the eco-system: ‘The wind developed by property developers started as breezes on cheeks and soon turned heads inside out’. As in Far Away, the absurdity of the inhuman condition under capitalism is discharged and delivered through the absurdist strains of Jarrett’s prescient tellings of ‘airsick families taking selfies’ or ‘chemicals [that] leaked through cracks in the money’.
As the Job-like prophet of world calamities (‘I only am escaped alone to tell thee’ – Book of Job/Moby Dick), Bassett is an utterly compelling teller of Churchill’s dark contemporary tales. A veteran of the Churchillean stage (her performances date back to Fen in 1983), she embodies the playwright’s political refrain for social democracy and prescient warnings of how the world will be in its continued absence. Equally, as she ‘entertains’ the here-and-now, futureless, apocalyptic void, Bassett utterly commands the stage. She appears before us in stark contrast to today’s slippery, fork-tongued, right-wing politicians whose speeches conceal the deep injustices and social depravities that are of their own political-making. Rather, in the guise of an ordinary (Mrs J. used to be a lollipop lady), ageing woman (baggy leggings, messy hair, loosely hanging mac, and shopping bag), Bassett gives us the ordinary woman who demands that attention must be paid to a world where domestic violence is on the increase, mothers miscarry, babies are born with escalating defects, and gas masks supplied by the NHS require a ‘three-month waiting time’.
Meanwhile, the trio of women she joins in the garden chat away about families, things they still aspire to or want to do, and at one, joyous point, break into song (‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, by The Crystals). Reminiscing through their minimalist, fragmented lines of lives remembered often through tiny, inconsequential details, this elderly, female ensemble has the feel of fading, dementia-like, memories, but with a razor-sharp, observational edge. Personal angst delineates the women: each has a moment when the conversation halts or freezes to allow them to voice their innermost fears. For Sally (Deborah Findlay) it is a deep-rooted dread of cats, while the softly spoken Lena (Kika Markham) suffers from a fog of anxiety that all-too regularly descends, causing her to withdraw from people and places. As for the gregarious, former hairdresser Vi (June Watson), she harbours a criminal past. That she killed her husband is calmly revealed to Mrs J. amidst ruminations on politically incorrect name-calling and warring factions, from Catholics and Protestants to Arsenal and Tottenham football teams. And when Vi’s moment of personal-angst-telling comes, it is the horror of the kitchen, the killing of her husband in the kitchen, that is voiced as leaving a deep-seated, fearful scar.
And so the sunny afternoon wears on: the shadows fall and Mrs J. takes her leave, though not before she has her own moment in the garden (rather than the ‘death space’), in which she repeats over and over the words ‘terrible rage’. Bassett’s delivery of this two-word refrain plumbed an emotional, rage-full depth that resounded throughout the Royal Court’s auditorium. And that for me seemed to be the point of it all: Churchill’s prescient, powerful reminder of the fury buried just beneath the surface of ordinary lives laid waste by the toxicity of our abject failure to democratise.