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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Escaped Alone escapes Western Gold

Accents get the upper hand in this dark British comedy

Caryl Churchill originally wrote Escaped Alone for British actors to perform at the Royal Court Theatre in London, England. Although expert dialect coach, Adam Henderson, worked with the four actors in Western Gold Theatre’s production, two of them speak in what sounds like Canadian accents, thus muddying the play’s intent. This fact highlights the difficulty of transposing to North America an intrinsically British black comedy, reliant on different dialects to illustrate the point that the characters hail from various parts of the same country.

If just one North American actor has difficulty with a British accent, let alone a regional dialect, then it serves the play better to set it in North America with accents and allusions to match. It is essential that the three retirees drinking tea and gossiping together throughout the play share similar terms of reference and culture. Only then is the horrific reality of the dystopia that runs parallel with their chit chat meaningful.

Because Churchill dabbles with dialogue, using sentence overlap, pauses, broken thoughts and interactions, in a way similar to that of Pinter and Becket, it is important that they speak the same language. Unfortunately, in this production of Escaped Alone, they don’t.

The actors, under Kathryn Bracht’s direction, fall into the trap of stylizing and thus inhibit the sense of what they’re saying. The result is a wordscape instead of communication of the playwright’s intent.

The accompanying soundscape falls into a similar trap. The uninterrupted birdsong that begins long before the play starts and continues throughout all the garden scenes could be cut by half. As it stands, it sounds more like a forest than a suburban garden.

If set designer Glenn MacDonald’s intention is to depict two separate worlds, i.e., the comfy unconcerned retired ladies’ circle as opposed to the aftermath of global warming, those two worlds need be more clearly defined and delineated. It should also give more indication as to who these people are and their relationship to each other. A garden gate and wrought iron table with a few chairs, alongside a tree with plastic-bag-leaves, tends to confuse rather than enlighten. The tree actually glows with different coloured lights to illustrate the stages of the apocalypse described by an enigmatically named Mrs J who has, presumably, escaped from it and who wanders into the garden, unannounced, “off the street.”

Unfortunately, Tanja Dixon-Warren’s appearance and demeanour as Mrs J fails to convince that she has just come from a holocaust. Instead, cleanly dressed Dixon-Warren, also Artistic Director of Western Gold incidentally, dramatizes the horror of what she has witnessed in a North American drawl punctuated with expansive hand gestures. This augmented account, without that typical British stiff upper lip, tends to lose significance and becomes yet another wordscape of sorts.

It is unclear why Mrs J intrudes on the cozy tea party. She doesn’t beg for food or water and takes the cup of tea grudgingly offered as if it’s totally normal for her to swing by. There is little sense of an affront the total stranger might pose to these ladies who sip. They treat her as an unwanted outsider occasionally, definitely not as someone afflicted with the plague, which, if what she says is true, is quite likely.

It’s a shame to see a script of operatic proportions, thus whittled down to a tune. That is not meant as a negative comment on the ladies’ nostalgic rendition of De Doo Run Run. It is very well done and provides joyfully light relief. If only Mrs J’s intrusion during the chorus didn’t go virtually unnoticed. If the three suburbanites’ reaction to her ‘bad smell’ were more deeply portrayed, it might serve as a comment on the divisions created by the jingoism and nationalism that prevail in today’s world.

There are more delicious moments in this production, though. Jenn Griffin gives a well-rounded, endearing performance as Vi, a London Cockney with a dark secret. Her timing is spot on, and she fills most of her pauses and half-sentences with inner dialogue.

Eileen Barret as Sally is also a tour de force when her character’s obsessive horror of cats emerges and she visualizes places where they might be found: in a shoebox on the top shelf of the wardrobe or – Heaven forbid – a teapot! Her monologue alone is worthy of the ticket price.

If these tea drinkers had something to do with their hands, other than raise those delicate teacups to their lips, it might breathe more down-to-earth life into their dialogue. Knitting perhaps. Crochet. Mending. Anything. Then their small-minded blindness, juxtaposed with the scientific reality that lies ahead if we don’t change our habits, might become a louder wake-up call.

After a short intermission, a Q and A session is available for those who care to dig deeper into the disturbingly murky depths that Churchill’s play explores. For others, there is always the new Lumiere light display on English Bay.

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Kathryn Bracht. A Western Gold Theatre Production. On stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) until November 17. Visit for tickets and information.

Editor’s Note (5 November): This review was edited to correctly identify Eileen Barret as the actor playing the role of Sally. We apologize for the error.

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