An everyday collision with the apocalypse
By Lois Maskiell
In the frightfully apocalyptic vision of Escaped Alone food is diverted to television programs, rats are eaten by those left with digestive systems and cancer grows in laptops. Meanwhile, four elderly ladies drink tea in the yard while conversing about a range of subjects from family and illness to science-fiction and travel.
Everyday conversations collide with a dire dystopia in Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play. It truly is an exciting prospect to see this text, by such a prolific British playwright, performed in this Australian premiere.
When Mrs Jarrett finds herself in her neighbour’s garden for a cup of tea after losing her key, she takes a seat among three other others including an ex-hairdresser Vi, a retired doctor Sally and the warm yet anxious Lena. Banter moves quickly over all manner of topics. We learn that Lena’s anxiety stops her leaving the house, Sally has an extreme phobia of cats and Vi spent six years in prison for murdering her husband.
The play swiftly wheels from this world to another, never stalling as it shifts from the simple green lawn of Dann Barber’s set, to the lower floor area where Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth) delivers monologues of death, disease and disaster. Forsyth is totally absorbing in her descriptions of a dark situation where “the chemicals leaked through cracks in the money” and “survivors go insane at different rates”.
These futuristic monologues often venture into nonsense, leading the audience through meaning towards loose ends and drawing much laughter along the way. Despite their comic twists, the monologues manage to spell out a degree of truth. The effect is similar to watching a world news broadcast focused on transmitting the most extreme and disastrous of current events.
Direction by Jenny Kemp keeps the speed and chatter perpetually buzzing. It’s impressive considering the topics discussed are hardly logical and the dialogue is interrupted by each character speaking before the other has finished their sentence. Rachel Burke’s lighting design separates each of the play’s eight segments with a low line of circular bulbs that light up so brightly their blinding effect wipes your focus fresh for the next moment.
Characters are excellently played: the refinement of Sally (Caroline Lee) contrasts to the tense yet endearing Lena (Marta Kaczmarek) and quick-witted Vi (Margaret Mills). Barber’s costume design aptly captures each woman’s demeanour and allows Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth) to stand out as the neighbourhood outcast. Mrs Jarrett’s ordinariness in manner and frankness in speech not only brighten the group dynamic but keep the action chugging along.
A jubilant moment emerges when the women sing ‘Da Do Ron Ron’ and the drama peaks when Forsyth repeats “terrible rage” over and over in a vocal range that holds you engaged through every syllable. Forsyth is a force throughout this one-hour show and is spellbinding to watch as she moves effortlessly between joining in the humdrum of everyday routine, to presenting a world of dystopic doom – as if balancing the two were something we all do every day.
It might seem mundane to think of four people chatting over tea on the lawn, though I assure you this play isn’t even slightly tedious. It’s brimming with all kinds of connections and nonsensical wisdom that offer perspicacious networks of meaning about existence and nothing all in one mouthful.
Sublimely clever and current, Red Stitch’s Escaped Alone will have you reeling at the truth and absurdity of it all.
Escaped Alone runs at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre St Kilda until 30 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9533 8083.
Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson