Once again it’s time for Mrs Chrisparkle and I to go on our annual pilgrimage to Chichester. Time was, when we lived in a little hamlet in north Bucks, that we thought Chichester was the centre of the universe; so much life there, so cosmopolitan. So many shops, restaurants, pubs and, of course, its amazing theatre. Now, we live in the thumping heart of the lively metropolis that is Northampton, we realise that Chichester isn’t all that lively really. It’s a sleepy little place where it’s very hard to get a drink after midnight, and trying to get a meal much past ten at night is a challenge too.
Nevertheless, we still enjoy our visits for the local charm and summer picnics, and the theatre. Because it’s almost a three-hour trip we tend to get tickets to a matinee and an evening show and stay overnight – make a weekend of it. And this year, for our matinee choice, I chose David Edgar’s new political work, If Only. When I was a teenager I was really impressed by his big work for the National Theatre, “Destiny”. It seemed all-encompassing, as it looked back from current day 1976 to partition in India in 1947. Later, of course, he would be responsible for that wonderful two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which condensed 900 pages of prose into 8 hours of thrilling stage drama. I’ve not seen anything else by David Edgar, so I was very keen to see how he would tackle a political drama about the coalition.
It’s an interesting premise. The first act shows our three political animals, one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory, stuck at Malaga Airport in 2010 whilst all the flights are cancelled due to the Icelandic Volcano. The general election is in a few weeks and these are important times for campaigners, MPs and wannabe MPs. Basically, the three of them need to get home as soon as possible, but every option seems to turn to dust. Eventually they buy an old banger, which gets them – neither quickly nor easily – back to the UK via Rotterdam; but in the getting there they hold all manner of discussions about the possible outcomes to the election and how they might best be dealt with. Add to this a young student who hitches a lift and throws many a spanner into their communal works, and it’s a real hotch-potch of political ideas, fears and plans.
After the interval we are propelled into a future world – summer 2014. Not long till the general election, UKIP are riding high in the polls, Christine Hamilton is an MP, our Lib Demmer is an MP with more influence than she could have imagined she would have, and our Tory MP is clinging on to the wreckage with concerns for the future. He’s on a mission to change what he fears will be the result of the next election but he needs the help of the others to achieve it; and the success or otherwise of that venture is where the rest of the play suspends.
There’s a lot of good in this play. It certainly gets you thinking about political scheming, and warns against extremism in a very clever and entertaining way. The set is really engaging, with an anxiously pixelating video wall that identifies the time and location of each scene, and which at one stage opens up to reveal a garage and real live Peugeot 205. The set changes completely for the second act, when it simply and effectively recreates a French battlefield chapel. There are some excellent witty observations in the text – I loved the reference to think tanks with a one word Latinate name, and also the fact that the Lib Dem has given up vegetarianism in the second act, which leaves an obvious deduction to be made about principles, just hanging in the air. There’s also the very interesting concept of the eighteenth camel, which gets used to great effect – Google it if you don’t know.
Despite all this though, I don’t really think it’s quite the sum of its parts. Whilst the play is thought provoking it’s also very wordy, and you frequently get the feeling – well I did anyway – that there are aspects of the plot that you haven’t quite understood and regrettably there is no time to catch up. I was also a little disappointed that the three main characters were so stereotypically predictable. The Tory is a toff, the Labour guy is an “angry young man”, and the Lib Dem lady is a well meaning balanced right-on person in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a pity he couldn’t have swapped them around somehow; that could have been very entertaining. The two male characters were a bit shouty – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – and it all seemed to take place at the same pace – which was rather relentless, in fact. This made it feel that it didn’t have a lot of light and shade. There was also a sense of an unbalanced structure; the first act was full of short scenes in different locations, which lent an atmosphere of variety, but the second act was just one scene in one location, which got a bit – dare I say it – boring.
The performances are all very good, although I particularly liked Eve Ponsonby as Hannah, the student, who is awkward and funny in the first act, and returns alarmingly more mature – or at least different – in the second. Whenever she’s on stage, her presence shakes up the other characters and creates more drama and tension. Without her, it’s a little like watching three TV talking heads at times, with a lot of verbiage to take in but not a lot to stimulate the other senses. Jamie Glover plays Peter Greatorex, the Tory, with a nicely played line in automatic arrogance and short temper; and his concern at how he perceives the 2015 election will go is very credible. Martin Hutson makes a good irascible Labour researcher with an indefatigable desire to get the last word in every argument and perpetually prove points. Charlotte Lucas’ Lib Dem Jo Lambert is in many ways the most interesting character as you see the effect that a little sudden power has on her, and she plays it very well. We enjoyed it – to be honest I think Mrs C enjoyed it slightly more than me, as she was more stimulated by the political arguments and concepts. But on balance, I was expecting something slightly more insightful and dramatic.
PS. Sorry to have to say this, but I think the bar at the Minerva is one of the most inept anywhere. When we visited last year, we caused the staff huge inconvenience by requesting a glass of wine. Apparently it was unheard of. This year, they took our interval order, but when we came out at half time they hadn’t prepared them, so we had to chase around from bar to bar trying to find someone to attend to us. Odd, considering that in the Festival theatre they are supremely professional at the beverage catering.