I was admittedly bemused by Here We Go, Caryl Churchill's 40 minute play that premiered at the National last November, roughly half of which comprised a wordless performance of an elderly man being repeatedly dressed and undressed.
Her latest play Escaped Alone is 15 minutes longer — it runs for 55 interval-free minutes — but whether that's enough to constitute what Royal Court artistic director Vicki Featherstone billed as a 'full-length play' when she announced it last year as the curtain raiser to the theatre's 60th year celebrations is another question.
I wasn't as enraged watching this as I was Here We Go, but I wasn't engaged, either. I said of Here We Go in my review here; "Churchill is nowadays revered and feted as one the most adventurous of all living playwrights, for testing the limitless possibilities of theatrical form; but Here We Go merely tests the limits of our patience." Escaped Alone is more conventional — in fact much of it comprises four elderly women friends sitting around passing the time in the summer garden of one of them. We could be in Ayckbourn territory (though without the gags, misunderstandings or marital mishaps). One of them fears dogs; another has served time in prison; another is agoraphobic.
But every few minutes, the stage goes to black and one of them — Linda Bassett's Mrs Jarrett — steps forward to deliver a piercing monologue about some encroaching dread. Are these real or imagined? As ever, Churchill is predicting a dystopian future. And since Churchill always seems to have an uncommon prescience in what she writes about, I told my guest over dinner that I wouldn't be surprised if we woke to headlines today that described exactly what she'd foretold.
But even though James Macdonald's precisely orchestrated production is played beautifully by a fine quartet of senior actresses who in addition to Bassett also include the estimable Deborah Findlay, Kiki Markham and June Watson, it's not a full or satisfying theatrical evening. At up to £35 a ticket, I suspect audiences are going to feel short-changed.
"Like all late Churchill, it packs an amazing amount into a modest frame."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"But the play is worth seeing for its outstanding performances that together summon a persuasive atmosphere of casual, everyday horror."
Clare Allfree for The Telegraph
"James McDonald's superb cast beautifully negotiates the shifts between intimate small talk, moments of comically awkward failure to avoid the unmentionable and the bleakly intense passages of private reverie."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This is the stuff of nightmares. But it can only be accessed through tiny chinks in the facade of everyday banality. The result is a rich, unsettling miniature that will divide audiences with its unusual mix of ordinariness, absurdity and dark enigma."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard