What If If Only, Royal Court review: Caryl Churchill confronts grief with a Dickensian minor marvel

Caryl Churchill's What If If Only at the Royal Court - Johan Persson
Caryl Churchill's What If If Only at the Royal Court - Johan Persson

Almost 20 years ago, in 2002, back before he was Bond, Daniel Craig trod the boards at the Royal Court in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. He brought a memorable emotional muscularity to various iterations of a cloned man confronting the shifty father (Michael Gambon) who has played God in trying to create the ideal son. It remains one of the resounding successes of Churchill’s estimable, highly experimental and long-lived careers – she’s now 83 – and will be revived in January at the Old Vic.

Directed by a regular collaborator James Macdonald, her latest work at the Court might look like a mere bagatelle in comparison - a short play lasting less than 20 minutes. But its brevity is a provocation; what can be said, and explored, in such a short period of time, and would it be worth making the pilgrimage to Sloane Square just to see it?

Given that tickets cost an eminently sane tenner, tops, I’d suggest – on balance, and slightly to my own surprise – yes. Churchill’s elliptical way with words can seem wilfully bamboozling and self-admiring, the flatness of her characterisations an indulged slightness. (I was no fan of 2015’s Here We Go, over-exposed at the National Theatre). But at her best, it’s as if she flips the envelope of existence inside out, so that what is intangible, almost inexpressible, a shadow of a dream, acquires a bracing reality.

In a white arid box of an interior, a man – John Heffernan’s Someone – sits alone at a kitchen table, contemplating a wine glass and talking, comically anecdotally, tearily and fondly to the thin air. He's addressing a "you" that has gone - a dead companion. As with Here We Go, Churchill is confronting mortality but there are shades of A Number in what happens next.

Linda Bassett and John Heffernan star - Johan Persson
Linda Bassett and John Heffernan star - Johan Persson

First a shadow cast against the back-wall and then stepping into view, Miriam Buether’s set rising up, a figure the text refers to as Future – embodied by Linda Bassett in a vivid green dress – comes a-calling. The intrusion is initially dismaying – this is not the deceased, and how could it be? – and then head-spinning.

In a mock-Dickensian twist, this is the ghost of a future that hasn’t happened, but might have if some impossible to fathom thing had taken place: “If I’d happened this nasty death wouldn’t have I’m the one where it wouldn’t,” to quote her mesmeric word-babble.

It’s droll and chilling depiction of the what-ifs and if-onlys that seize us at times of grief, the torment multiplying as Bassett then channels a mass of unrealised futures in a stream of vying voices – varying from an old person, arms imploringly outstretched, to fleeting glimpses of different worlds.

It’s as if Churchill balances the dread and confusion, intimately personal and macro-political, that's sloshing about these terminal-feeling times on a pin.

Bassett’s concluding switch into being the Present, cheerily blithe, bustlingly insensitive, followed by the brief appearance – Waiting for Godot-like – of a child, another symbolic figure of the future, resolves matters too neatly I think. But for, say, 15 minutes, five seconds the piece is a minor marvel.

Until Oct 23. Tickets: 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com