A very British apocalypse is unfolding. We don’t know about the apocalypse initially in Caryl Churchill’s 50-minute play, Escaped Alone, presently showing at BAM, because we are popping in to what seems more like a gently unfolding afternoon chat behind a suburban, high, wooden, garden fence.
Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) is loitering there to listen to the conversation of Sally (Deborah Findley), Lena (Kika Markham), and Vi (June Watson). Is she lonely, sinister, sweet? Whatever, she wants to join in.
The women know she is there, and so invite her to join them in the garden, a calmly, slyly believable set design by Miriam Buether, with creeping ivy, grass, a garden hose, and a shed. And so, the four women sit on Sally’s garden chairs and chatter, and it should be as normal and quotidian as that sounds, because they do just prattle away in this very British garden on what looks like a typically listless British summer afternoon.
The first odd thing is that the women—not posh, not poor—talk at each other, and around each other, and only sporadically to each other. It is not exactly a conversation. But, along with the birdsong and sounds of children and cars, it feels normal, light, fripperous.
But things are not normal in this Royal Court Theatre production from London, directed by James Macdonald. Every once in a while, the stage goes black and lit only by two squares of red light—a kind of danger sign maybe, designed with flickering menace by Peter Mumford—Mrs. Jarrett appears outside the back garden tableau to talk about a world that is dying, or dead, or living in a kind of hyper-reality, as if the world as we know it has mutated into an absurdist oblivion.
“Four-hundred-thousand tons of rock paid for by senior executives split off the hillside to smash through the roofs, each fragment onto the designated child’s head,” she says. “Villages were buried and new communities of survivors underground developed skills of feeding off the dead where possible and communicating with taps and groans. Instant celebrities rose on ropes to the light of flashes. Time passed. Rats were eaten by those who still had digestive systems, and mushrooms were traded for urine.”
This vision of a society in terminal freefall sounds ridiculous, but also plausible. Far from us, but also near. The women’s chat is its own riot of odd: It goes from how lovely a table to how things that are closely associated can be at war, like Cain and Abel, and Arsenal and Tottenham. And then there is the murder of Vi’s husband by Vi: She recalls every moment of it.
But in the garden the chatter, whatever the subject, stays at the same singsong pitch, and in the play’s most unexpectedly lovely moment, the women sing The Crystals’ hit “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Whatever their discordant voices and lack of listening skills, whatever separates rather than connects them, the women’s perfect harmonies and unison suggests they have something fundamental in common.
That may be simple survival. What we get to know about them that they don’t know about each other is that each has endured a pivotal moment of suffering of her own. They tell the audience about these moments and incidences of profound anguish individually, whether it being paralyzed by inertia or an all-consuming, and vividly conveyed, fear of cats.
Throughout, Mrs. Jarrett steps away to relay more newsflashes from the apocalypse, when a world like ours somehow completely loses its marbles. It sounds funny, tragic, and in—an odd way—possible.
One of her most delightful riffs imagines the darkest, most lunatic outcome of our foodie culture. “The hunger began when 80 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… Cars were traded for used meat… The obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers.”
Has the apocalypse she is talking about happened? The bucolic nature of the women’s summer’s day would suggest not. Is the apocalypse something that will happen? We don’t know. Is Mrs. Jarrett crazy, or telling us about visions or dreams, or something from the past? Who knows.
A lot of what we watch feels like wordplay. The conversations are rather like watching a Pac-Man game, with thoughts building on thoughts and speeding down avenues only to hit cul-de-sacs of fathomless sadness or glinting self-discovery. And then, finally, there is one woman’s rage, a terrifying rage.
Even if the apocalypse has not happened, or if it is about to happen, even if it will ever befall this quartet, Escaped Alone suggests that some kind of respite is possible; and that, in a world on the edge or just over the edge, tentative, jarringly polyphonous connections such as these four women share, are better than none at all.
The play ends as it begins, with Mrs. Jarrett outside the high wooden garden fence. It’s just another day, and apparently not yet the end of the world.
Escaped Alone is at BAM’s Marcus Harvey Theater, until Feb. 26. Book tickets here