What If If Only review: an audacious theatrical miniature from Caryl Churchill

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Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in What If If Only  (Johan Persson)
Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in What If If Only (Johan Persson)

Small but beautifully formed is the best description I can think of for Caryl Churchill’s audacious theatrical miniature. The 83-year-old writer packs more into this 20-minute piece about death, grief and the multiverse than many writers manage at seven times the length.

Less formally experimental than much of her work, it has a crystalline beauty, sly humour and boundless imagination. Yes, it’s short, but it’s also a chance to see a truly uncompromising theatrical voice at the top of her game in a career that’s spanned 63 years, well served by fine actors and by her director and frequent collaborator James Macdonald. What’s more you can see it alone, or alongside Aleshea Harris’s euphoniously named by startlingly different Is God Is, remarkable cheaply. Or you can be sat down for a nice early dinner on Sloane Square by 6.30pm.

John Heffernan’s unnamed man shares an anecdote with a lost loved one, possibly but not necessarily female, who seems to have died by suicide. His chattiness breaks down. Imagining a world with them still in it he repeats the phrase “I miss you” with heartbreaking intensity. The strength of his emotion conjures up a spirit or force in the shape of the great Linda Bassett.

What If If Only - ‘small but beautifully formed’ (Johan Persson)
What If If Only - ‘small but beautifully formed’ (Johan Persson)

This chatty, bright-eyed older woman represents a different potential future of “equality and cake and no bad bits”. If he can bring it/her into full being, his loved one will be restored. But a lot of other stuff will be different, too.

As he wavers, powerless and confused, other possible but unlived timelines voice themselves through Bassett. We glimpse a world where there was “no rule-the-waves, no slaves”, where the earth has been wiped out by a meteorite or by human greed.

It’s a testament to Bassett’s virtuosity as a performer that she seems, briefly, to contain multitudes. The appearance of a young actor near the end – an exuberant Jasmine Nyenya the night I saw it – offers a moment of hope in the face of existential despair. Churchill is exploring the point where scientific thinking and supernatural or spiritual belief start to blur, I think.

Unlike her near-contemporary Harold Pinter, whose plays retained a recognisable tone even as they became more concentrated, Churchill’s are always surprising and experimental. Sometimes with amusing effect. After opening night there was animated discussion on theatre Twitter about whether an early burst of sound, like accelerated birdsong, was a deliberate effect. Apparently it was feedback from the theatre’s induction loop system for the hard of hearing.

Royal Court, until Oct 23; royalcourttheatre.com

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