REVIEW: If Only by David Edgar receiving its world premiere at Chichester’s Minerva Studio theatre

In modern political debate there is usually ‘the elephant in the room’. The key issue that no-one wants to discuss.

Friday, 21st June 2013, 4:01 pm
What's On
What's On

For some years it was immigration within the EU.

But a new contemporary play premiered in Chichester which explores the creation of today’s coalition Lib/Con Government focusses less on the elephant and more on the camel.

The camel in question comes from a childhood conundrum in which a mathematical puzzle only works when a camel is first borrowed and then returned to a neighbour.

In this case it represented a special factor that could be added, enabling the coalition to be born, and once it had achieved its goal could be safely removed again.

If it all sounds rather cerebral for a piece of modern entertainment in the Minerva Theatre on a warm June evening, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The second half of the play, set in 1914 at centenary commemorations for the outbreak of the first world war, possesses shadows of a Bernard Shaw verbal exploration of an idea.

But ‘If Only’ is not without its humour, dexterity, political astuteness, and skilful juxtaposition of characters.

The coalition’s rise and potential fall is told not through the party leaders - even though they adorn the programme cover - but three second-tier politicians from each of the main parties.

Their journey together begins, quite literally, in a car as they seek to rush back to Britain from Spain for the 2010 general election hampered by the ash cloud that halted most air travel.

The staging of the car is a mini masterpiece on the small revolving set, as is the clever digitalised backdrop.

As they explore all the political options for no party securing an overall majority, personal secrets are shared and the trails are laid for political heartache and disillusion come the next major poll - by which time UKIP is writ large in the landscape.

There are some strong performances from all three key players - Charlotte Lucas, Jamie Glover, and Martin Hutson - as well as from Eve Ponsonby, a teenage traveller they pick-up en route and whose own personal political transformation we gain insight into.

The animation and humour of the first half somewhat diminishes by the second and while the script is remarkably accurate in terms of using the actual events of the past three years to underpin its arguments, there is a sense that it is nearly but not quite robust enough to be entirely credible.

Orwell’s ‘1984’ may have been visionary enough to sustain it beyond the date of its title, but it is hard to see that come the summer of 2014 this particular interesting endeavour will have quite enough to retain the public’s interest, especially if events ‘dear boy’ overtake it.

As for the camel, for those who do not know the story, it runs like this. A father dies leaving 17 camels. Half to his first son. A third to his second child. A ninth to his final offspring. Of course, without chopping up the camels, you cannot divide them in this way.

When you borrow an 18th though, the maths work perfectly - nine, plus six, plus two - and you still have one left over to return to the original lender.

Political pundits and even mathematicians will love this production.

Whether, like the modern politics it represents, it quite possesses enough integrity to satisfy all other theatre-goers remains to be calculated.

But it is tremendous to see Chichester, even in the midst of a spectacular £22m renaissance of its main house, taking artistic risks and breaking new creative ground in this way and for that reason alone

it wins my vote.