Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs (****)
Theatre’s pre-eminent Cassandra, the title of Caryl Churchill’s latest play comes from the quote prefacing Moby Dick, from the Book of Job.
The implication is that, like the narrator of the Moby Dick story, so Churchill’s Mrs Jarrett (the wonderful Linda Bassett) comes before us as the sole survivor, to recount tales of our collapsing world.
Like Churchill’s millennial Far Away (2000), this futurist vision is necessarily pessimistic if once again couched in light mundanity. In Far Away, hats took centre stage. Or rather back of the stage. The image of magnificent millinery juxtaposed with a litany of persecution and death is etched on my memory.
Escaped Alone doesn’t quite match Far Away for dramatic impact. And it can even – heretical to say so – seem repetitive.
Yet Churchill’s skill in making the stomach churn with descriptions of implausible and all too recent natural and man-made catastrophes whilst interspersing it with a group of middle-aged women gossiping away on a summer’s day, remains powerfully undimmed.
She loves breaking convention, theatrical and social and Escaped Alone with its monologues and broken dialogue is another stylistic evolutionary step.
Between chats about school, shops, holidays and birds, Mrs Jarrett delivers a series of short, terrifying speeches indirectly recalling disasters such as Aberfan, Chernboyl, the Japanese tsunami whilst each woman carries her own tale of woe: murder, agoraphobia, cat phobia, and the common if unspoken taboo of pure rage.
As well as being a livid, lived in warning, Escaped Alone is sublimely modest but original in its homage to the trivial, to female friendship and the support such chats supply in daily life.
Probably not since Churchill’s Top Girls has a play given women – and women now of a certain age – the chance to shine.
Deborah Findlay, June Watson, Kika Markham and Bassett need no second bidding. They are a delight and a wonder to watch, Findlay rising to apoplexy in her feline fear, Markham distinctive in her wish to be invisible and Watson the most unlikely – and even, for a moment comic – murderer.
Bassett delivers the horrors with impeccable sang froid and a muzzled sense of mischief.
Tough but, as ever with Churchill, structurally and linguistically fascinating. And true.
Escaped Alone is at the Royal Court to March 12, 2016
Review first published by Reviewsgate, January 2016 and slightly amended here.