Staged at the Royal Court, the site of many Churchill premieres including 2019’s Glass. Kill. Bluebird. Imp, the story unfolds on Miriam Buether’s box-like set, reminiscent of a minimalist doll’s house. Someone (played here by an anguished John Heffernan) sits alone at a table, a glass of wine and the remains of a takeaway in front of him, speaking aloud to his dead partner. He asks them for a sign, ‘just any small thing’, as proof they’re still out there, somewhere, provoking the appearance of a silhouetted figure.
When this figure (played by an eerily dogmatic Linda Bassett) steps into the foreground, however, they are not Someone’s lost lover but ‘the ghost of a dead future / a future that never happened’, greedy for Someone’s approval and confident in the opinion they would have been a future loved by everybody.
John Heffernan and Linda Bassett in What If If Only. Photo: Johan Persson
From here, in Churchill’s signature style, the conversation takes on multiple layers, with Someone continuing to channel the domestic, personal issue of his dead partner, while Future and Futures (both played by Bassett and, somewhat confusingly in James Macdonald’s production, as if they were one character) speaking more globally of a better, more friendly future that humanity is turning its back on. Both are wistful about the futures that cannot, will not, be. When Future describes herself as a ‘utopia’, it's unclear whether she means a more climate-friendly future or one devoid of war and injustice, though Buether’s dressing of Future in green seems deliberate.
As the possibility of hundreds, nay thousands, of different futures is raised, we meet a Child Future (a sprite-like Jasmine Nyenya) who is determined that they will one day happen in the present. Then it’s all over, leaving us wondering what it all means and musing over the brilliance of Churchill’s writing.
Jasmine Nyenya and John Heffernan in What If If Only. Photo: Johan Persson
With its 6pm and 10pm start times, visitors to the Royal Court can watch What If If Only either before or after a performance of Aleshea Harris’ revenge play Is God Is, or the script-in-hand read through of Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland, if they don't fancy schlepping to the theatre for a 20-minute performance.
The play is perhaps unlikely to be staged alone in the future; its short run time will prove a tough sell for getting bums on seats. More likely, it’ll be staged in tandem with other short works by the playwright, such as her climate-focused 1971 play Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen. Or perhaps it’ll be staged as a starter or dessert for a longer production with a similarly dystopian theme, such as Far Away.
Short, sharp and seductive, What If If Only is a reminder of Churchill’s genius and is not to be missed.
|What||What If If Only, Royal Court Theatre review|
|Where||Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Sloane Square (underground)|
29 Sep 21 – 23 Oct 21, 20-minute performances at 6pm and 10pm
|Price||£5 - £10|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|