Caryl Churchill’s devastating Escaped Alone at Red Stitch features some of the finest theatrical talent in this city, says Robert Reid
As we enter and leave the theatre, we hear the pleasant sounds of an afternoon in the garden. The gentle tweeting of birds.
A tiny space – Red Stitch is always tiny, of course – split into two. Above ground: a pleasant backyard garden with three old friends and an interloper, who asks the questions we want to ask. Simple green grass, flowers and light emptiness behind. Below: earth, broken cutlery, discarded rubbish. Detritus of the suburbs and tendrils of plant roots dangle silhouetted in front of a row of lights that blaze out from deep within the earth, momentarily blinding the audience.
Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play Escaped Alone is staged at Red Stitch by some of the finest theatrical talent in the city. Under Jenny Kemp’s direction, Caroline Lee is kind of reverse crazy cat lady, Marg Mills as an abusive husband-killing hairdresser and Marta Kaczmarek a breathless ex-office worker. Meanwhile, Julie Forsyth is a kind of working class Cassandra. Each has escaped from their own kind of apocalypse.
The three above, old friends dressed in middle class middle aged pastels, are joined by an outsider in loose-fitting blacks, a former goth or punk maybe. They talk about trivial things and slowly reveal themselves: their pasts, their regrets, their secrets. Underneath, Forsyth tells us the future history of every kind of hipster apocalypse. The blinding lights cover Forsyth’s entrances and exits. She’s here to tell us how the world ends. She speaks of cancers of the fingertips and the lap top, children poisoned by drinking sugar, floods and disease and fires.
Kemp sets up a rhythm between the above and the below. It continues long enough to become monotonous, and then gently breaks the rhythm by focusing on the emerging monologues. Each woman talks about their children, their grand children maybe. The monologues are interspersed with hints of horror: a terrible fear of cats, the crushing ennui of office work, the tragic sorrow of the family sacrificed in a moment of self defence.
And then the beat-taking vision of Forsyth in full flight, repeating terrible rage terrible rage terrible rage, over and over again.
Above ground, the textual rhythms are all so very familiarly Caryl Churchill, those half sentences and ellipses. The diction feels stiff: the ends don’t trail off and aren’t quite interrupted. They amplify a feeling of facade, the hard, polite face of old friendships; but as the afternoon turns into evening, as truths come out, so do old wounds. The cat lady may have perjured herself for her friend. Maybe it really was murder? Guilts and doubts. Anxieties in the face of the monolithic.
Below ground, the text reminds me of Grant Morrison’s cyberpunk transhumanist comic book series Transmetropolitan. Only it’s Julie Forsyth saying the words and Caryl Churchill writing them, so they lack the triumphalism, the ego. They simply are. They collect the detritus of now and construct a towering, absurd apocalypse that feels all too imminent.
And the sheer joy, amidst everything, of Forsyth dancing while the others sing Da Doo Ron Ron.
So much in only 55 minutes. Devastating, smart and succinct.
Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Jenny Kemp. Set & Costume by Design Dann Barber. Lighting Design by Rachel Burke. Composer, Elizabeth Drake. Performed by Julie Forsyth, Marta Kaczmarek, Caroline Lee & Margaret Mills. Red Stitch Theatre. Until June 30. Bookings