If Only (review)

If Only. Image by Catherine Ashmore.
If Only. Image by Catherine Ashmore.

Opening scene: “There’s this clapped out old Peugeot stuffed with a Tory posh boy, a Labour firebrand and an ambitiously passionate Lib-Dem staffer… oh, and a ridiculously knowledgeable teenage girl who is 18 going on 35…”

David Edgar’s new drama, If Only, being staged at Chichester Festival Theatre, lives, breathes and eats politics. Its characters spend every waking second, and a few minutes in the sack, arguing for their political beliefs in a flurry of rhetoric and idealism.

They barely pause for breath and there were times, on opening night, when it made my head spin, trying to follow everyone’s arguments. And that’s where you need an educated audience. This is drama for the Daily Telegraph reader. Wordy isn’t the half of it. The programme gives an idiot’s guide to 21st century politics and it comes in handy to have done your prep.

You’re playing the “What If” game. What if three politicos were stranded in France in 2010 because of the Icelandic Ash Cloud disaster? With the upcoming election, and their own respective party’s manifestos to debate, what else could they talk about?

The group spends a few days attempting to drive back from France in a ropy old banger they’ve bought on the cheap. Along the way they pick up a teenage hitchhiker, who, amazingly, it turns out, knows more about British politics than any 18-year-old girl I’ve ever encountered. Between them, they thrash out a way of putting Britain to rights through their own version of “war-gaming” that tries to avoid the potentially nightmare scenario of a hung parliament and a coalition government.

They also learn more about each other than they ever wanted, with each holding a secret that could result in the downfall of the others.

Fast forward to the near future and they meet up to carry on the covert negotiations to resolve Britain’s growing unrest on immigration, the economy, unemployment and the Tory/Lib-Dem alliance.

The commentary is so contemporary than Edgar must be making refinements on a daily basis to make it sound current and true.

I loved the cut and thrust of the political debate with reality of life in the UK over the last five years neatly juxtaposed with Edgar’s own posturing and propaganda.

Jamie Glover makes a formidable Tory MP and a fitting opponent to Martin Hutson’s Labour attack-dog and Charlotte Lucas’ idealistic Lib-Dem worker.

All three snarled and scrapped with Eve Ponsonby’s Hannah acting as a junior Devil’s Advocate.

None of the characters were particularly fleshed out but they didn’t really need to be as they represented their parties rather than their leaders.

If Only is thought provoking and intelligent and, listening to the first night audience as they left, it certainly stimulated some fierce cross-party debates. It’s refreshing to welcome a new drama (making its world premiere on Chichester’s Minerva stage) that doesn’t dumb down but can still be entertaining.

If Only runs until July 27. For tickets or information call the box office 01243 781312 or go online www.cft.org.uk

*Frank Langella (my Dracula of choice) is appearing in the title role of King Lear at the venue in an extra production that has been added to the summer festival schedule.

He is in the capable hands of director Angus Jackson, who directed both If Only and the upcoming Neville’s Island.

Lear will run from October 31 to November 30.

@LBOanne