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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Escaped Alone (Tron Theatre)

Updated: Mar 3

Two worlds are spliced together and served with tea and biscuits


When the curtain is dramatically drawn back on the cast of Escaped Alone, the sight is like a cross between a cheap reality TV reveal and a police lineup. Each seventy-plus woman is sat on mismatched garden furniture, mug in hand, poised as though daring the audience to speak first. We don’t of course. It is airy and placid, yet somehow comes as a shock, even as the audience are expecting a play about women talking in a garden. This opening moment epitomises the tone of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, directed for the Tron by Joanna Bowman. It’s pointy and uncomfortable, but you’re not quite sure why…at first.

 




Lena (Anne Kidd), Vi (Irene Macdougall), and Sally (Joanna Tope) are three older women convening in one of their gardens for a cup of tea and a catch-up when Mrs Jarrett (Blythe Duff) wanders by and decides to join them. They rarely speak in complete sentences, instead their lines are condensed snippets of typical, mundane conversations: “Barney never out of his phone”, “I’d have been the same”, “looking pale”, “whole worlds in your pocket” and so on. We’ve all had this conversation, so Churchill slashes out the unnecessary words with Orwellian vigour. And still, each actress brings out their defining characteristics, especially during each of their monologues. Macdougall is particularly strong as the abrasive, tell-it-how-it-is personality of the group, who would rather dig at her friend’s sensitivities in an effort to help her rather than respect her discomfort and her boundaries. But Duff has the most challenging role of the four since she is not just an older lady having a natter – she is an apocalyptic messenger.

 

Half of the performance is spent in the garden, but the other half sees Duff take to the back of the stage and describe an apocalypse; natural disasters, totalitarian governments, and hyperbolic horrors that are as upsetting as they are comic. Think food shortages so bad commuters resort to getting breakfast "through iPlayer", tumbling rocks that each fall onto “a designated child’s head”, and “obese people selling slices of themselves”. If you are tempted to recall any similar real-world catastrophes, don’t; the descriptions are beyond either useful or tasteful comparison.

 

These two sections are interwoven with each other, punctured by a blaring sound and a blinding light directed at the audience. Why, you may ask, are they in the same play? Well, one reading is that it contrasts stasis with chaos. The women in the garden are consumed by their enjoyment and resentment of their own uneventful lives, while those living through the described apocalypse are living in (quite literally) unimaginable turmoil. It is a compelling idea, but they each speak very different languages. Firstly in the writing: one half’s dialogue is like shards of glass that needn’t be finished to be understood, and the other steams ahead with gruesome descriptions that one could only wish would be summarised. Secondly in the staging: the apocalyptic scenes are so relentlessly dark and at the same time are visually understated, since it is just Duff talking in front of a monochromatic projection. Meanwhile, the banality of neighbourhood gossiping is vividly realised, as though that is the half of the performance we would most struggle to imagine. What the two halves do have in common is that neither goes anywhere. An argument breaks out among the women which shifts how they see one another, but it doesn’t satisfy the wait for action. Meanwhile, the apocalyptic report leaves you feeling as empty as if watching a pessimistic climate crisis diatribe. Contrast is one thing, but these halves feel as though they belong to different plays entirely, and neither is particularly engaging.

 

Much like its opening moment Escaped Alone prioritises its sharp, pointy atmosphere over being relevant and involving. In her programme note Bowman writes that “reading a play and thinking ‘I have no idea how to do this’ is the surest sign I will want to direct it.” It is a brave ambition, but to watch the performance one feels as though that question of “what to do with this” was never answered. It showcases superb performances, but it feels like a reading because the production isn’t any more challenging or insightful than the printed text. In translating the play bleakly, loyally, and unresolvedly, Bowman leaves her audience trying to piece the last fifty minutes together and thinking ‘I have no idea how to do this’. Two stars.


Escaped Alone will play at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow until March 9th

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