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BWW Review: WHAT IF IF ONLY, Royal Court


Caryl Churchill's latest short play opens at the Royal Court

BWW Review: WHAT IF IF ONLY, Royal Court

BWW Review: WHAT IF IF ONLY, Royal Court What If If Only, the prolific Caryl Churchill's latest short play, explores incredibly complex issues of grief and time in its very short 20-minute run time. Premiering at the Royal Court, James Macdonald's production finds the humour and humanity in the text, which is brought to life with imagination.

The play opens with Someone (John Heffernan) sitting alone at a kitchen table with a glass of wine. He is the only person onstage, but addresses his late partner, begging to be able to speak with them again.

What he sees instead is a woman (Linda Bassett) who explains that she is a Future where his partner lives, one that could happen, if he makes it so; a ghost on the edge of existing. A delicate balancing act between an aching, realistic representation of bereavement, and a witty piece of philosophy, What If If Only asks what happens when we try to bargain with time, or time tries to bargain with us.

Heffernan and Bassett illustrate this balancing act with skill. Their two leading performances feel as though they exist in different universes, while still working together well. Heffernan's honest portrayal of grief is simple and genuine, while Bassett is larger than life - as she has to be, in a part where she essentially plays every future that could happen! At the end of the play, child actor Jasmine Nyenya enters as 'Child Future', in a charismatic cameo that brings together three different generations.

Perhaps the real star, however, is the combination of Miriam Buether's set, Prema Mehta's lighting design and Macdonald's directorial vision. The play takes place inside a large, white cube, and the different Futures played by Bassett are created as shadows on the back wall behind her. The cube rises and falls as different lifetimes fade in and out of possibility. Macdonald builds a world we can touch from Churchill's more abstract text, and also brings out the characters' contrasting physicalities and the moments of comedy. This is a visually striking production, making the big questions of the script into something tangible.

It speaks to Churchill's esteemed reputation and longstanding popularity that this 20-minute work can generate such a buzz. The concept clearly works as a short play, echoing its title: a short glimpse at what could have been.

As much as it's an excellent piece, however, What If If Only feels as though it's running primarily because of Churchill's name, not because it speaks in any special way to audiences this year. It's topical but not urgent; its universal themes mean it would be well-received at any moment in time. The hope for a different reality, and overarching theme of grief, definitely feel relevant to the pandemic, but there's nothing that marks this play as coming from the present. Its universality is perhaps both its greatest strength and one of its few weaknesses.

What makes What If If Only successful is the way it grapples with both societal issues and with human emotions. Between repeated desperate "I miss you"s and lines about how "China and Russia and South America" and this "little country" have died for a peaceful future, Churchill succeeds in exploring both the personal and the global. It's a worthwhile, thought-provoking show - and, if it doesn't entirely merit the trip on its own, the Royal Court are offering ticket deals to create a strong double bill with their other current show, Aleshea Harris's Is God Is.

What If If Only runs at The Royal Court Theatre until 23 October.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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