Theatre reviews: Escaped Alone | The Full Monty

At the Tron in Glasgow, Caryl Churchill’s post-apocalyptic drama Escaped Alone is superbly performed by a remarkable cast, writes Joyce McMillan

Escaped Alone, Tron, Glasgow *****

The Full Monty, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****

If Andy Arnold’s artistic directorship at the Tron Theatre had one special hallmark, it was his determination to offer audiences the Scottish premiers of brilliant new plays recently acclaimed in London or beyond. Exactly a year ago, for example, he directed a thrilling Scottish premier of Glasgow-based writer David Ireland’s magnificent pitch-black comedy Cyprus Avenue, first seen at the Royal Court in 2016; the show, starring David Hayman, was so successful that this week it returns to the 1,400-seat Glasgow Pavilion, now under new management.

And at the Tron, meanwhile, the company offers another Scottish premier of an astonishing Royal Court play from that same year, this time performed by four superb leading women of the Scottish stage. What makes Caryl Churchill’s 50-minute drama Escaped Alone such a remarkable play is the immense concentrated skill and inspiration with which Britain’s greatest living playwright creates an epic drama in such a small space.

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The birdsong is loud, as the play starts; four elderly women meet in a leafy back garden, on a summer afternoon, and shoot the breeze. At first, the play seems like a brilliantly-observed comedy about the extraordinariness of apparently ordinary lives. The women share their health grumbles, and reminisce about their working lives; while it gradually emerges that one of them, Vi, has served six years in prison for killing her abusive husband, a fact her two chums seem to take in their stride.

There is a fourth woman with them, though, an acquaintance who happened to be passing; and it’s through this woman, Mrs Jarrett, that the play suddenly soars and crashes into something else – a horrific yet fiercely satirical and poetic account of a global catastrophe that Mrs Jarrett alone apparently survives to describe.

In that moment, Churchill’s play becomes part of the growing body of work that seeks to dramatise the ever more surreal conjunction between the continuing relative comfort of most western lives, and the encroaching global horrors that we witness daily on our screens. The sheer power of Churchill’s writing, and the intensifying brilliance of the alternation between the scenes in the garden and Mrs Jarrett’s monologues, make this perhaps the briefest and most brilliant of all those plays.

Escaped Alone PIC: Mihaela BodlovicEscaped Alone PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Escaped Alone PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

And in Joanna Bowman’s production – backed by Susan Bear’s haunting sound, and wonderful monochrome video by Lewis den Hertog – Churchill’s text is superbly performed by a remarkable cast, featuring Irene Macdougall, Joanna Tope, Anne Kidd, and the inimitable Blythe Duff as Mrs Jarrett, the woman who somehow lives to tell the tale of unimaginable catastrophe, and of the end of our fragile world.

The current UK touring production of The Full Monty, meanwhile, comes as a timely reminder that not all western lives are cushioned by luxury and affluence. Based on his script for the hugely popular 1997 film, Simon Beaufoy’s play tells the tale of a group of unemployed former steel workers who work out that their best hope of making some fast cash, in the 1990s, lies in imitating the Chippendales, and taking their clothes off in front of roaring all-female audiences.

What makes the show both poignant and hilarious, though, is that the group of six men who eventually come together are such a mixed and unlikely bunch, ranging from wide-boy Gaz and his overweight mate Dave, to middle-class Gerald, whose wife doesn’t even know he’s lost his job. Add a few feisty and loving women to the mix, along with Gaz’s super-sensible little son Nathan, and you have a heartfelt and truly hilarious comedy about traditionally-raised men trying to adapt to a late capitalist economy which cares nothing for productive industry, but everything for showbiz; and Michael Gyngell’s gorgeous cast do the play full justice, in a warm and richly enjoyable show that tours on to Aberdeen, next month.

Escaped Alone is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until 9 March. The Full Monty is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 19-23 March.