Caryl Churchill explores grief and loss with a study of a man facing different possible futures

During the time it took Keir Starmer to deliver his party conference speech this week, Caryl Churchill’s new play could be performed four-and-a-half times. This is partly because the Labour leader went long by rhetorical standards, but also because the 83-year-old dramatist’s later work tends (like that of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett) towards stinging miniatures.

Over in 20 minutes, What If If Only might be subtitled Christmas Caryl, as, a man is, like Dickens’s Scrooge, visited by ghosts who confront him with alternative biographies. These apparitions, though, are not triggered by a miserly yuletide, but bereavement. The wedding ring-wearing protagonist sits at a table set for one telling stories across a single wine glass to the empty chair where a dead partner once sat. John Heffernan rawly embodies the lurches between memories of past closeness and the chasm of cold absence that grief’s derangement brings.

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