Writer: Caryl Churchill
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The calm of an English suburban garden on a Summer afternoon provides the misleading primary setting for Caryl Churchill’s bold and original one-act comedy. All is not what it at first seems and, in a parallel universe, a catastrophic event is threatening all civilisation.
An apt alternative title for the play could be “The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse”. When interloper Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) goes through an open gate to enter the garden of Sally (Deborah Findlay), she finds her chatting with her friends Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson) and she joins in. All four talk to each other, but listen to almost nothing, isolating themselves in their own cocoons.
When it comes to capturing the banality of everyday English middle-class conversation, Churchill is not quite Alan Bennett, but she hits the mark more often than not and laces her dialogue with dark absurdist touches. However, she alternates scenes of normality with scenes in which Bassett stands alone on a blackened stage, framed by flickering red strips of light, describing a post-apocalyptic world in graphic, horrifying, yet still humorous detail.
The stark contrasts are unnerving and the fragility of everything in life that we all take for granted is brought into focus. Churchill positions her play at some point where the real merges with the surreal, where mundanity collides with fantasy and where the inconsequential is interrupted by the profound. Miriam Buether’s sets highlight these contrasts; an idyllic garden with brown fences under a pale blue sky gives way to pitch darkness, accompanied by crackling noises, as when a radio frequency is changing.
Lighting, designed by Peter Mumford, also plays a key role in James Macdonald’s considered and finely detailed production. As Mrs Jarrett learns of the inner lives of her three companions, the lights around each, in turn, dim and the others sit motionless, listening inattentively. Sally fears cats, Lena fears open spaces and Vi fears kitchens, having killed her husband in one. Churchill is showing us the sinister undercurrents, real or imagined, that run beneath a facade of tranquillity and she is emphasising the isolation of each of the women.
Four of our finest actors bring the characters to life, achieving the perfect balance between comedy and pathos, their joint rendition of Da Doo Ron Ron being one of the production’s most memorable highlights. The creators of all good comedies need to know when the core joke has run its course and Churchill shows her finest judgement in bringing this play to an end, summarily, after a mere 55 minutes. The outcome is a small package filled with entertainment and thought provoking ideas.
Runs until 12 March 2016 | Image: Johan Persson