What If If Only review, Royal Court: Caryl Churchill explores grief and madness in 17 minutes

Churchill’s script packs many an emotional punch, traumatic and claustrophobic while laugh-out-loud funny

Isobel Lewis
Saturday 02 October 2021 10:46 BST
<p>John Heffernan and Linda Bassett in Churchill’s short play</p>

John Heffernan and Linda Bassett in Churchill’s short play

How do you solve a problem like a 17-minute Caryl Churchill play? Even if you love short plays, they are usually shown as a series, as Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp was in 2019. What If If Only, the playwright’s latest work with the Royal Court, is a standalone piece, and it’s hard not to approach it with a little scepticism. Then again, this is Caryl blummin’ Churchill – if anyone is worth so briefly leaving the house for, it’s her.

The curtain rises on a man (John Heffernan) sat alone, dinner for one and a half-drunk glass of red wine on the table. He’s encased within a large white box, Miriam Buether’s simple design feeling far too large, yet far too small. Speaking aloud, he absent-mindedly recalls some silly story he’s heard – the kind of story his partner would like to hear, were they still alive. The man is unshaven and untethered, a glazed-over look in his eyes. He grieves for his love, his relationship, the future they could have had and longs for some sign that they can hear him.

And then, with a low rumble, they appear. Before him stands a woman (Linda Bassett) – not the person he remembers, exactly, but a version of them that could have been. She speaks in vague platitudes with a lyrical, airy tone that’s occasionally hard to follow. The jumble of words twist and turn back on themselves, “what”s, “how”s and “if”s repeated like glitches. But Churchill’s script still packs many an emotional punch, traumatic and claustrophobic while laugh-out-loud funny.

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