Four older women chat idly in a garden as the afternoon wanes. Sally (Deborah Findlay) discusses her fear of cats. Vi (June Watson) is grateful to still receive phone calls form her children. They reflect on their past lives, which include middle-class jobs and, in one case, mariticide. A conversation about punchlines in jokes touches on national boundaries and our desire to cast difference on others. Vi asks, “Did Abel make jokes about Cain being stupid and that’s why he killed him?” Later, they will all sing The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” elongating the vowel in “Ron” as is done when pronouncing the name. The lighting is bright enough that I can see the smudges on my glasses.
Occasionally, the woman least familiar with the group, Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), breaks away to deliver extended monologues on the apocalypse. Framed by bright orange lighting that crackles and pops as it is turned on, and with the rest of the cast in darkness, she talks about cannibalism, about food shortages, and about reality shows in which audience members can watch others indulge in eating. Apparently, while basic needs dwindle, electronics remain in abundance.
At only fifty minutes, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone is fragmentary and elliptical, with many sentences left unfinished. The play recalls the late, pared-down works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, such as “Footfalls” or “Precisely,” and is imbued with the same sense of dread. Escaped Alone, after all, is more about mood than narrative. We are never quite sure if this lackadaisical conversation between friends occurs before or after the rupture Mrs. Jarrett describes, but the title, which is taken from the Book of Job, suggests that either way these women are survivors of private traumas.
It is all quite funny, too. While, unfortunately, the four actors have not mastered the rhythm of the dialogue, delivering it far too slowly, they do an excellent job of juxtaposing tragedy with lighthearted delivery; they also possess that supremely British ability for reserve and understatement. We learn that the reality programming, far from Hunger Games-style bloodsport, were viewed by “commuters [who] watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work.” It is as if mass extinction was hardly enough to interrupt the placid mundanity of everyday English life. None of the apocalyptic monologues, then, feature the expected fire-and-brimstone rhetoric; backyard and disposition are equally sunny.
The gaps, of course, are the point. This is a text onto which we can project our own fears and traumas, one that is both specific and universal. As we live in a time that increasingly feels like a period of interwar, a period on the precipice of collapse, we wonder how we will be spending our own twilight years. Will our futures be as stable as the eternal English garden?