At 77, Caryl Churchill isn't so much slowing down as paring down, Pinter-style. Lately, the veteran dramatist – prolific as ever – has been trimming her running times and discarding the grand experimental gestures of her early work, while keeping her wit and moral seriousness. Escaped Alone hews to the trend: in 55 minutes of clipped dialogue and minimal staging, Churchill delivers an incisive and funny take on friendship and the end of the world.
The bulk of the one-act play is set in an English garden, where four seventy-something women sit chatting over tea. One minute they’re trading knock-knock jokes; the next, discoursing on the use of birds in religious iconography. Their group dynamic is so skillfully sketched, the performances so nuanced, that the four emerge as complete, distinct characters within minutes.
In true Churchillian style, there is an absurdist streak to their banter. They’re easily confused, mixing up one other's dogs and grandchildren. The times have overtaken them: they are baffled by modern technology and riled by modern Americanisms. Contemporary society comes in for a more thorough drubbing in the soliloquies that make up the rest of the play, in which the women's vague sense of impending doom is made concrete.
Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett), the cheeriest of the four, blithely describes an apocalyptic scenario in which global corporations send boulders tumbling down on houses. This is where Churchill gives free rein to her anti-corporate, anti-globalisation impulses. Bassett delivers the lines wonderfully, but the satire is heavy-handed and the send-ups of selfies and cat videos feel, well, old.
Otherwise, Escaped Alone is exquisite minimalism: restrained dialogue, deep thoughts, a light touch. We have come to expect this from Churchill. It's hard to imagine she will ever stop.