Theatre review: Escaped Alone and What If If Only, Southbank Theatre

The MTC’s Caryl Churchill double bill is technically and dramatically sound, but doesn’t fully exploit the radical force of this revered playwright.

One of contemporary theatre’s most influential playwrights, Caryl Churchill is known for her bold plots and playful approach to form, carefully employing punctuation and stage directions.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Churchill double bill attempts to showcase the multitude of ideas her plays have to offer, staging two of her later works, Escaped Alone and What If If Only side-by-side for the first time. These two works form a satisfying thematic and dramatic yin and yang together, but this production shies away from the radical political dimension at the centre of Churchill’s appeal.

Escaped Alone juxtaposes private and public; four elderly women converse in a garden, interspersed with gruesome monologues on total environmental collapse.

Simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, this production lets Churchill’s language do the heavy lifting, opting for an uncluttered stage picture. Marg Horwell’s overgrown weedy garden set, coupled with Jethro Woodward’s eerie bird chitter sound design perfectly summon a world that is slightly off-kilter – comforting and beautiful, but with the underlying feeling of unease.

This production hurls you straight into its dark heart, actors hurrying to spew verbose dialogue before a snap blackout halts the scene. Given Churchill’s cryptic, lucid writing style, this pacing can feel a bit overwhelming early on and doesn’t quite land the dynamic between the pleasant garden space and the terror of the monologues, a polarity vital to a Churchill play.

Over time the production eases its pace enough to let you in, and the actors relax into their performances, allowing Churchill’s language to take root. The four women draw us in with a playful a capella rendition of The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’, undercut by visceral imagery of desolate wastelands and rocks crushing children.

Helen Morse as Mrs Jarrett defers to the power of language, delivering apocalyptic monologues with a startling frankness and effortlessly drawing meaning out of the repeated phrase, “terrible rage”. Debra Lawrance is wonderfully flippant as husband-killer Vi, bringing a necessary moment of pathos through her monologue on an estranged son. Deirdre Rubenstein reaches fever-pitch hysteria as cat-phobic Sally, and Kate Hood captures the underlying anxiety of agoraphobic Lena. A subtle shift from warm to cool light during these monologues wonderfully zeroes in on the dread behind the comfortable façade, apocalypse and tea-party bleeding into each other.

Where Escaped Alone indulges in a macro perspective on catastrophe, What If If Only is an intimate and surreal look at bereavement, a lover mourning the endless possibilities they might have had with their recently deceased partner. Here, Churchill packs a colossal, operatic deliberation on life and death into 25 minutes while remaining emotionally accessible, the perfect complement to the enigmatic Escaped Alone.

Alison Bell is disarmingly vulnerable as S, anchoring the play’s philosophical discussion with tenderness, and Lucy Ansell brings a delightful impishness to F. A diverse ensemble of “Futures” (Fs) are breathtaking as they emerge from seemingly nowhere, feeling attuned to each other like a single organism.

‘What If If Only’ by Caryl Churchill. Photo: Pia Johnson.

Paul Jackson’s lighting design is the unsung hero, a sequence of oscillating lights conveying the passing of multiple days and nights as S sits in her kitchen ruminating. Horwell’s set design cleverly unites the two plays, placing the garden from Escaped Alone behind What If If Only’s open plan house.

Read: Theatre review: Hells Gates, Geelong Arts Centre

In their approach to the plays, director Anne-Louise Sarks and assistant director Brigid Gallacher draw thematic connections and honour the language, but sadly miss out on tapping into the political force of Churchill’s writing. Escaped Alone offers a powerful opportunity to comment on climate apathy and modern consumerism, a discussion that Churchill deliberately places in the mouths of a generation who won’t live to see the ecological turmoil we are hurtling towards.

While this is a dramatically and technically well realised production, it falls short at capitalising on the anxieties of today’s society, timidly scratching the radical heart of this celebrated playwright.

Escaped Alone and What If If Only by Caryl Churchill
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Set and Costume Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: Jethro Woodward
Voice and Text Coach: Geraldine Cook-Dafner
Assistant Director: Brigid Gallacher
Escaped Alone Cast: Kate Hood, Debra Lawrance, Helen Morse, Deidre Rubenstein
What If If Only Cast: Lucy Ansell, Alison Bell, Steve Mouzakis, Anna Francesca Armenia, Iopu Auva’a, Sepideh Fallah, Kate Hood, Debra Lawrance, Helen Morse, Jalen Ong, Tomas Parrish, Deidre Rubenstein, Teja Kingi, Caleb Lee, Imogen Premraj, Aubrey Flood, Aram Geleris, Jonty Reason

Escaped Alone and What If If Only is being performed from 7 August to 9 September at Southbank Theatre; tickets $29-120.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker who has performed at Melbourne Fringe, AsiaTOPA, Darebin FUSE and La Mama's War-Rak/Banksia Festival, and created content for La Trobe University, ArtsHub, RMITV and C31. She is currently the Melbourne Content Creator for Indian Link Media Group, an award-winning publication empowering the South Asian diaspora. She is also a passionate arts advocate, helping run various campaigns to save theatre at La Trobe, and is the Secretary of the Australian Women Directors' Alliance. In her spare time, Lakshmi enjoys crochet and taking photographs of flowers for her Instagram @lakshmilikesflowers.