THEATRE REVIEW: What If If Only starring John Heffernan & Linda Bassett at the Royal Court

WORTH A LOOK?: ***1/2

WHEN?: Wednesday 6 October (matinee), runs to 23 October 2021 RUNTIME: 20 minutes

Bassett is 1 of our favourite actresses and we last saw her onstage in author Caryl Churchill’s considerably longer Escaped Alone at this very venue 5 years ago.

  • Read on for reasons including how we combined this play with another new piece of supernatural writing to make more of a day of our theatre experience

At 50 minutes that original play was almost twice the length of this evening’s entertainment but in many ways the success of What If If Only should be more about how it made us feel rather than its duration.

We meet a man played by Heffernan apparently mourning the suicide of a partner while sitting at a desk drinking a glass of red wine and speaking aloud his desire for their return.

The futility of an artist spending years trying to capture the essence of something as simple as an apple is contemplated, sparking easy laughter from the audience. We can also hear sniffles of near stifled crying as his loss is laid bare.

They are reactions that many considerably longer plays struggle to provoke at all and so we are clearly here witness to a piece which immediately draws us to its emotional heart.

We’ve previously seen Heffernan in the quirky Pinter at the Pinter season almost 3 years ago and once again here his performance is understated yet pitched beautifully. A study in grief and loss with a tiny hole in his sock yet never showy or over indulgent.

He is joined by Bassett who, like some twist on A Christmas Carol, represents an upbeat, jolly possible future promising equality and then worries that Heffernan’s character will be troubled by other potential less hopeful futures that will want to become reality. The way she speaks Churchill’s spare lines is simply poetic and enchanting.

It’s an interesting idea and we enjoy the difficulty of it with neither actor entirely sure what the other has to do to bring this state about. By the time Jasmine Nyenya joins the fray the world building is vivid despite its brevity.

Author Churchill remains an artist unwilling to sacrifice form for conformity and we emerge from this 20-minute piece all the richer for its emotional heft and enthusiasm to try something different.

There are other plays at this venue to combine with this one to make for a lengthier outing although we chose to see it with a matinee of 2.22 A Ghost Story, at the Noel Coward Theatre where Lily Allen was making her West End debut and it too was an unexpectedly fine piece of writing with a supernatural element.

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy Royal Court Tickets
  • Have you seen these shows? Let us know in the comments below
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