Caryl Churchill is one of our greatest and most inventive living playwrights, as anyone who has seen the likes of Serous Money, Top Girls or The Skriker, recently revived at the Royal Exchange with Maxine Peake, would surely acknowledge. Remarkably, although Churchill is now in her late seventies, her latest work, Escaped Alone, coming to the Lowry after a successful run at London’s Royal Court Theatre, ranks with her most challenging even though its basic setup of three old friends and a neighbour, also all in their seventies, drinking tea and chatting in a backyard, couldn’t, on the face of it, be simpler.
Running at a shade less than an hour with no interval (but one song) and lots of blackouts as thoughts are cut off or left unarticulated, it’s even been suggested that it’s not a “real” play at all, as if some lengthy, dazzlingly-staged epic is necessarily possessed of more weight and import than this simple framework is capable of supporting. Yet Churchill manages to vividly evoke both the seemingly humdrum and the horrific, the personal and the planetary as the tone abruptly and provocatively shifts throughout a dizzying, tantalising show that manages to cram in more ideas and questions than most shows twice its length. Murder, prison, climate-change catastrophe, chaos, and a morbid fear of cats collide with absurdist comedy, such as the delicious notion of a world-wide food shortage being caused by the vast majority of the world’s food being diverted to TV cookery programmes.
Any false sense of security engendered by a cast that includes such familiar and friendly faces as Linda Bassett, Kika Markham, June Watson and Deborah Findlay is thoroughly and mischievously undermined in a piece that never lets its audience taken anything for granted.
Churchill is well-known for her reluctance to even comment on, let alone elucidate, the intent behind her plays which you might imagine could cause problems for the cast and the rest of the creative team, as well as leaving audiences confused. Not so, insists Stella Powell-Jones, charged with overseeing this new production, which opens its UK tour at The Lowry.
“I actually didn’t work on the initial, very successful run at the Royal Court,” she reveals. “So to an extent my job has been as a relative outsider to ask questions that those who’ve been involved all along might perhaps want to think about again, questions they thought were settled or obvious, offering new places to go.
“Carol did come along to the rehearsal room this time and was very generous but she made it clear that whatever her intentions or thoughts might have been, everything she has to say about it is in the play. ‘Take away from it what you want’, she always says. I can see that’s potentially frustrating, at least from a marketing point of view, but on the other hand I hopes it’s enpowering in that whatever you do take away from it, you can trust that that’s the right thing, that you haven’t missed anything.
“This is not a story about old women or the ageing process though, these four women are just themselves at this age as we all are, or will be.”
“There are lots of ways into it. Some parts are hyper-realistic, for instance the flowers in the garden are real and actually blooming or on their way out. Then we go to the stark catastrophe and I think different people are caught by different catastrophes, which can be either very personal or something that’s worldwide. It’s about the massive and the miniscule at the same time, thanks to the evocative brilliance of Carol’s writing. She is always pushing the form forward, someone who’s ahead of the game, and she didn’t need to make it any longer. The elliptical quality of the play, its careful design and the element of theatre magic that goes into it and its richness means that it’s a rare and unusual experience. There’s so much Carol asks you to think about in those fifty minutes that it’s the equivalent of a much longer piece.”
*Escaped Alone is at The Lowry March 7th-11th