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Deborah Findlay: 'Caryl Churchill's work is always so unexpected'

As she returns to Escaped Alone at the Royal Court ahead of a New York transfer and UK tour, the actress explains why Caryl Churchill's play is like a piece of music

Deborah Findlay

Deborah Findlay is currently starring in Caryl Churchill's play Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. It's not the first time she's worked on a Churchill play at that venue, she was in the original cast of Top Girls in 1982. Over a long, award-winning career, she's starred in Foyle's War, in Cranford opposite Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Francesca Annis and in Madame de Sade at the Donmar Warehouse 2009. In 2016 she spent rather a lot of time at the Royal Court. After opening in the original run of Escaped Alone in January, she then starred in Lucy Kirkwood's play The Children (also with Francesca Annis) in November.

Caryl Churchill's plays often have people's dialogue inter-cutting and overlapping, but Escaped Alone isn't quite like that, is it?
No, Caryl started all that off, but this is made up, for the most part, of little sentences, which isn't her signature style. This stems from observing how we all start sentences and then...

Never end them...?
Yes, how you suggest, and people get the jist and you don't have to finish [a sentence]. It is very precise. It's an extraordinary piece of writing and more than anything I've done it's very important to honour the structure of it. It's like a piece of music. It's fantastic.

Has it been hard returning to it?
I think all the original cast thought: 'if it is going to be done again, I want to do it'. And we all had our original scripts, which helped. There are quite a lot of people in the play who are mentioned, so we had to work out who they all are in relation to us. So it was very helpful to have that already.

The show practically sold out, were you surprised?
With Caryl's work, you never know how it is going to be received because it is always so new and unexpected. Like with Top Girls we had no idea whether it was going to work or not.

Linda Bassett (Mrs Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena) and June Watson (Vi) - the cast of Escaped Alone
© Johan Persson

What was it like working on Top Girls?
Amazing. That first scene! In Top Girls there was quite a lot of overlapping but it hadn't been done very much before and it was overwhelming to get your head round it. Max Stafford-Clark, who directed, was brilliant. Again it was a kind of orchestration, because you can't end up with everybody shouting. You had to know which bits were important on the overlap so that the audience could follow the line of thought.

So when Escaped Alone popped up, did you jump at the chance to do it?
You know whatever it is going to be [with Churchill] it is going to be fascinating. With both pieces - certainly with Escaped Alone - you can't grasp the whole thing. What is so brilliant is that you present it and then people take all sorts of different things from it. It has been called apocalyptic and prescient, but Caryl presents it without rules on how the audience should take it.

So were you surprised by what people took away from it?
No, the apocalyptic vision is clearly there, but when you think of it, it's four retired women, sitting in a garden, chatting. Basically that's the structure, and yet it seems to have affected people in a very profound way. You can put this play against anything it will have resonances. Obviously today there's Trump, but also there's the huge women's march. I think part of that women's march was about women being together. Somebody who came to see [Escaped Alone] described us as gallant. There's a feeling that we are carrying on regardless.

It's quite rare to have roles like this, do you think there are beginning to be more roles for older women?
Hopefully! Long may it last, because we are very interesting. We have got all sorts of stuff to call on and be involved with.

What's it like being back at the Royal Court?
I haven't left really. I have done lots of readings and workshops. I hadn't done anything on the stage since Tom and Viv. Back then backstage was higgledy piggledy. When we were in The Children, Ron Cook brought some photographs in from when he was in Our Country's Good and the dressing rooms were all poky, to put it mildly. Obviously there are a lot more women there now in powerful positions. Which I think is happening more and more in the theatre.

You're onstage with the rest of the cast of Escaped Alone the whole time, do you get on?
Yes, we really do. I mean you have to get on. But I think when it's a play about a group of friends, you can tell [whether we get on or not]. It's an awful lot easier if you like each other anyway. We have opted to share a dressing room too.

Escaped Alone runs at the Royal Court until 11 February and then tours to The Lowry, Salford (7 to 11 March); Arts Theatre, Cambridge (14 to 18 March) and Old Vic, Bristol (22 to 26 March).