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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Escaped Alone (45 minutes) and What If If Only (25 minutes), an MTC double bill at Southbank Theatre

Now in her mid 80s, Caryl Churchill is regarded as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights.

Her work is innovative … enigmatic, challenging and provocative, inevitably open to interpretation.

Escaped Alone and What If If Only is the world-first pairing of two separate short plays by the acclaimed Brit.

Photos by Pia Johnson

The former, which runs for 45 minutes, sees three women aged 70 plus sitting in the lush, tranquil surrounds of an English garden chewing the fat.

It appears that they are engaged in idle conversation.

Mrs Jarrett (Helen Morse), who is passing by, is invited to join them.

During their frequently interrupted chat, which I will come to in a moment, we get to know a little about them.

Sally (Deidre Rubenstein), who used to work for the National Health Service, reveals her deep-seated fear of cats.

Wheelchair bound Lena (Kate Hood) was an office worker.

Vi (Debra Lawrance), a retired hairdresser, can’t help but reflect upon a traumatic incident in her past, when she stabbed her husband to death.

Her son was just 12 at the time and she spent six years in prison for the crime.

Mrs Jarrett – who listens and occasionally comments during the course of the womens’ interaction – suddenly transforms into a narrator of doom.

Accompanied by dramatic sound and pitch dark, she moves into a different realm.

She relates horror stories of the world coming to an end.

The apocalyptic visions are harsh and unrelenting, and continue to punctuate the women speaking about their concerns.

Towards the end, Helen Morse, in character, repeats the words “terrible rage” over and over.

So, Escaped Alone is a juxtaposition of individual distress and worry with global cataclysm.

At 25 minutes in duration, What If If Only sees a woman (Alison Bell) sitting alone in her home absorbed by the grief of losing her partner far too early.

At first, it is just her at a kitchen table. Day turns to night, again and again, the lighting indicating the shifting time frame and the hopelessness of the situation. No words are spoken.

Bell subsequently moves into the bedroom and starts talking to “him”, relaying how much she misses him.

And then a ghost of the future (Lucy Ansell) arrives, before Bell’s home is inundated by more ghosts, whom she sends packing.

Soon thereafter, the spirit of her dead partner (Steve Mouzakis) appears and a phantom child enters the frame. Perhaps there is hope.

I was particularly impressed by Helen Morse’s gravitas and turn of phrase and Deidre Rubenstein’s engaging, elongated comic sensibility in Escaped Alone.

Alison Bell presents a compelling picture of loneliness and loss in What If If Only.

Marg Horwell’s sets (she is also responsible for costume design) are superb and evocative.

First up, a large garden setting – pretty flowers and greenery – followed by a four room, life size “doll’s house” after interval.

Equally noteworthy is Paul Jackson’s lighting design – light and shade playing a significant role in both productions. His “transitions” are striking.

Composer and sound designer Jethro Woodward ensures the “shocks” in Escaped Alone remain seared into our consciousness.

Caryl Churchill provides much food for thought in two plays that are stimulating and confounding.

To her credit, director Anne-Louise Sarks adds drama to each. She is spot on with breaks and spacing in Escaped Alone and What If If Only.

They are playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 9th September, 2023.


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