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Escaped Alone (Royal Court)

James Macdonald directs Caryl Churchill's new dark comedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Caryl Churchill certainly keeps you guessing. You never know what's next. She follows her short triptych on mortality, Here We Go, with a 55-minute dark black comedy – probably her funniest play to date – which could well be sub-titled, "And Look What Happened When We Got There."

The title, Escaped Alone, is taken from the Book of Job – "I only am escaped alone to tell thee" is Churchill's epigraph in the playtext - and here serves to identify Linda Bassett's chatty, rain-coated Mrs Jarrett as the bringer of post-apocalyptic bad tidings.

She's walking along the street, sees three women sitting in a garden and joins them. Their everyday sunlit conversation, while laced with jokes about illness and not being able to keep up with quantum physics, is a light counterpoint to Mrs J's grim reportage.

Those six or seven speeches of catastrophe are delivered in a frame of sizzling red neon light around Bassett's acidulous assortment of floods, fires, avalanches, chemical warfare, hunger, starvation, planes with sick passengers diverted to Antarctica and a blackened country where zero growth and zero politics have led to charred stumps being salvaged for art and biscuits.

The alternating scenes remain the outer form of the play, but the ladies in retirement in the garden come increasingly into their own. Kika Markham's timidly inflected, beautifully hesitant Lena reveals the hardship involved in her office job. Medical worker Sally (Deborah Findlay) has an extended, terrifying aria about cat phobia. And hairdresser Vi (June Watson) talks of a criminal past and odd behaviour in the kitchen as though she was recounting a trip to the shops.

It's a joy to watch these actresses at work, and director James Macdonald applies the lightest of touches, so the lines seem to float on the air before crunching you in the stomach. Indeed, as the overall tenor of the garden chat is nostalgic and reminiscent, you begin to realise there is more of an overlap in the content of the two dramatic styles than you first thought.

The great moment – not a spoiler, honest - will always arrive when the four of them form an impromptu a capella quartet and slide into a harmonised rendition of Motown classic "Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals. This stops the show without heeding its progress, and proves once again there is far more easy "theatricality" to Churchill than she's often credited with.

Miriam Buether's design springs its great surprise early. Thereafter, the transitions between sunlight and dark foreboding are superbly facilitated by the lighting of Peter Mumford and the sound of Christopher Shutt. The world will obviously end with both a bang and a whimper, and any day soon, you feel. Cheers, Caryl.

Escaped Alone runs at the Royal Court until 12 March 2016.