A surprisingly funny play about loss and grief
At the beginning of What If If Only, we meet a man referred to in the cast list as ‘someone’. He’s sitting at a table in a small room talking to himself or rather to someone who isn’t actually there.
His first words are about a man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so that it looked just like an apple, then seven years trying to paint an apple so that it looked nothing like an apple. Given that Caryl Churchill’s new play is less than 20 minutes in length, I assume she wouldn’t waste words. So what’s the significance of the apple fable? I’ll come back to that.
We immediately discover that his partner has died but that he still likes to talk to his beloved and wishes he could get in touch with them, beyond the grave, as it were. John Heffernan’s portrait of grief is touching, it’s so quietly sad. A bit too quiet actually in terms of being heard at the back which is a shame because James Macdonald’s production savours every word.
Our ‘someone’ wonders ‘what if’ his loved one had lived, and wishes ‘if only’ they had lived. He longs to see a ghost. Designer Miriam Buether’s cube-shaped room, which is a metaphor for being contained by the present, rises to let in a ghost from outside the present moment.
Thought provoking and cleverly told
What follows in this short comedy about loss is both thought provoking and unexpectedly funny. Much to our surprise, and that of the protagonist, the ghost that appears is not wished-for dead figure from the past but a ghost from the future, then more futures. All are represented by a smiling and occasionally stern Linda Bassett who has great fun switching between characters in some packed monologues.
Actually, we do meet one more character- a child who could be part of this man’s future. ‘Child Future’ was confidently played on the occasion I saw it by Samir Simon-Keegan who may well be part of the future of acting.
It’s a play about dealing with grief and the theme that emerges is that you can’t bring back the past, only take one of many possible routes into a future that is certain to be different from the past. Not a hugely original idea, but cleverly told.
So what about the apple? Is the apple a metaphor for the present? While his loved one was alive, each new moment resembled the previous moments in his memory, so was he at that time painting an apple that looked like an apple, but when his loved one died, the present was no longer matched his memories, so he was trying to paint an apple that looked nothing like an apple.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the apple. What if I hadn’t tried to analyse the meaning of the apple story? If only I hadn’t mentioned the apple.
What If If Only continues at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021