Like much of Churchill’s work, Escaped Alone eschews easy answers. At 78, she’s inarguably one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights, and this particular work, her newest, is funny, charming, and alarming, encapsulating an impossible amount into its brisk 55-minute running time. The fractured, occasionally abstract conversation of the four women, and the contrast of their casually mundane garden party with the horrors Mrs. Jarrett recounts, points to Samuel Beckett; the repeated references to birds bring to mind Churchill’s dark 1994 eco-fairytale, The Skriker. But Escaped Alone also feels indubitably of its moment, with references to mindless masses numbed by iPhones and TV cooking contests. There’s some discussion of a “trigger” word; by finding solace and safety in their communal space, the four women are, whether or not they know it, indulging in a kind of post-apocalyptic self-care. Not to mention the nightmarish visions Mrs. Jarrett spells out, some of which are a degree too close to reality for comfort.
The production, directed by James McDonald and exquisitely acted, unfolds within a square box onstage, dressed to resemble a serene but unfussy garden. A shed sits off to the right, ivy climbs over the back wall, a yellow hose rests on the lawn. Periodically, as the women converse, there are familiar sounds in the background: traffic passing by, children playing. Sally (Deborah Findlay) is good-natured and eager, Lena (Kika Markham) is more reserved, Vi (June Watson) cheerfully outgoing. They interrupt and finish each other’s thoughts. Their easy harmony is best represented in one moment where, spontaneously, they launch into a perfect rendition of a 1963 hit by The Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
Mrs. Jarrett’s stories, which recur with comic frequency, thrust the audience into an uncertain liminal space, and offer their own barbed humor. In one story, rocks crash down onto a country and survivors move into communities underground; in other, flooding forces cities onto rooftops, where people catch pigeons with fishing nets. In a third, Churchill skewers modern culture, with Mrs. Jarrett detailing how “the hunger began when eighty percent of food was diverted to TV programs. Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work. Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking.” The obese, she explains, “sold slices of themselves,” and mushrooms were “traded for urine.” The absurd anecdotes offer caustic humor, but also a bleak vision of a society placated into mass starvation and degradation by lowbrow entertainment and lulz.
As the show progresses, the three other women on the lawn have their own monologues, delivered in a kind of limbo state where the light onstage dims, and the other characters appear to nod off. Sally voices a profound, distressing phobia of cats, while Vi is profoundly depressed and agoraphobic. Vi, who murdered her husband when she “accidentally” found a knife in her hand, is now uncomfortable in kitchens, and estranged from her son after six years in prison. That these honest, offhand expressions of anxiety appear to go unheard by the others seems to be the point of the monologues. Mrs. Jarrett “escaped alone” into the garden. The comfort of community can’t entirely assuage the characters’ darkest fears.