It is baffling to me that opportunities for creatives, especially women, dwindle as they get older. I know theatre is (still) very much a boy’s club and enamoured with youth but as an audience member I always find it elating to be in the presence of veteran talent that has the benefit of decades of experience. To watch and learn from someone in masterful control of gifts that have been refined over decades but maintain a fresh invigoration is a singularly rich theatrical experience. Escaped Alone, a recent play by the visionary playwright Carol Churchill (it premiered in 2016), currently playing at Red Stitch is one such experience.
Four women gather in a backyard to drink tea to reminisce, gossip, exchange small talk and delicately needle each other. Three are seemingly old acquaintances and their neighbour Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth) has impulsively joined them. Beneath the seemingly banal small talk lie a lifetime of traumas, regrets, grievances and compromises that are expertly revealed to us through the familiar chit chat of old acquaintances. Such is the skill of these four performers I could easily have watched three hours of them exchanging small talk rather than the lean 55 minutes we are blessed to spend with them; but Churchill has something altogether more ambitious in mind. At frequent intervals Mrs Jarrett separates herself from the action to describe to us in precise, matter of fact detail how the world will end. Is she a prophet? Is she reporting what has already come to pass? She also briefly narrates the beginning and the end of the play; are these exchanges her creation? She is a witness and a chronicler and what is so transcendently beautiful about the text is that each woman’s internal experiences are given the same weight as the annihilation of the world. Like a musical composition for a quartet Churchill displays exquisite tone and balance, on reflection, every single phrase she has written seems indispensable which is honestly no mean feat when exploring the mundane.
Jenny Kemp is a particularly fine choice to interpret this material; readers and audiences may remember her production of Top Girls at the MTC a few years back. A legendary playwright in her own right (I studied her at university) she has brought the text to life with her exceptional insight in how language is formed, psychological insight, interpersonal dynamics and unexpected moments of catharsis. Chiefly she has provided the space and nurtured her performers to do what they do best. But what a space it is. Dann Barber’s set (he also designed the costumes) is seemingly a suburban back yard but it has been raised above a mound of dirt; to me it felt as if I was though I was watching a diorama in museum which brought with it all sorts of eerie and unsettling connotations. Are we watching a replica of humanity past? Where things we see as ordinary have become relics of a different civilisation. Rachel Burke’s lighting design is seamlessly compelling and Elizabeth Drake’s compositions spine tingly intense.
The text provides four rich and fertile parts for mature actresses and the ensemble is consistently revelatory. Carol Churchill’s text does specify that they be in their seventies and the cast is younger by a few decades however Julie Forsyth, Margaret Mills, Caroline Lee and Marta Kaczmarek are all so brilliantly suited to these characters that it hardly seems worth mentioning. The term masterclass can often be overused (I am attempting to be more selective with it) but it could not be more pertinent to the emotional experience these four evoke. Those previously familiar with Julie Forsyth’s work know that she is particularly gifted at making anything that comes out of her mouth funny. It’s a skill that is invaluable in her many apocalyptic monologues; the world she evokes is horrific but Churchill’s script is laced with wry, morbid humour that she delivers with such earnestness that the audience can’t help but laugh, even in the face of our own doom. But it’s the vulnerability of her performances that is etched in my memory; there is one repeated phrase that had me in tears. Margaret Mills as Vi is a fascinating study in stillness; she is the most abrasive of the four, there is a defensiveness in her body language and her voice even when the conversation doesn’t call for her it. We slowly discover precisely how her life experiences have moulded her behaviours, Mills performers is deeply empathetic and honours Vi’s trauma with grace. Marta Kaczmarek’s perfectly performance as Lena is effortless relatable; her monologue is one of the most profoundly moving explorations of depression I have ever heard written and performed it causes you to reflect back on her entire performance thus far and marvel at how seamlessly she has built up to this moment. I said earlier that this piece feels like a piece of music and if that were so then I believe Caroline Lee as Sally is maintaining the harmony. She shares a gentle and sometimes fraught chemistry with her co-stars; I was most moved by her eyes and reactions. She does however get an anxiety ridden aria centred around her hyper fixated fear of cats that builds to a tremendous crescendo. It is one of the blissful advantages of Red stitch that the space is so intimate that we as an audience may internalise the details that these artists have crafted into their work.
Escaped Alone is an exquisite combination of an innovate writer, a brilliant director and production team and most of all four tremendous actresses at the top of their game.