David Edgar’s new play If Only is a minor work by a major dramatist. As one of the group of left-wing British playwrights, including the likes of David Hare, Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths, who made their name in the early 70s, Edgar has always been passionately engaged with political ideas, but this topical talking piece lacks the richness of his best writing. If Only comes across as more of a glorified polemical debate than a fully-fledged drama.
The opening act takes place in the spring of 2010, just before the general election. A Conservative MP, a Liberal Democrat staffer and a Labour Party special advisor, stranded at Malaga Airport by the Icelandic volcano ash cloud, are so desperate to get back to Britain that they share a clapped-out hire car all the way to France, picking up en route a student first-time voter. After much candid discussion about what would happen in the event of a hung Parliament, they agree to disclose a personal secret to each other whose exposure would ruin their careers as a deterrent to leaking their indiscretions.
In the summer of 2014 they all meet up again in Belgium where there is to be a ceremony commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. The Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government, which has been in power for over four years, has run into trouble as the increasingly popular UKIP exploits growing public discontent. The Tory MP, in a bid to stop his party lurching to the right, threatens to expose the others’ secrets if they don’t help him with his plot.
With considerable perception and wit, Edgar summarises the various arguments around the forming of the coalition, then speculates about how the political landscape will have changed in the run-up to the next election in early 2015. There is quite a bit of fun to be had with the horse trading and the jockeying for position amongst the parties, as well as satirical swipes at professional politicking and media manipulation.
But, while the recent events analysed seem over-familiar, the predictions of the near future are not very persuasive, especially overestimating the significance of UKIP. Edgar’s main intent seems to be to warn of how people’s disaffection with the mainstream centrist parties is in danger of letting the extremists into power, but the play is so focused on the Westminster bubble that it does not breathe dramatically, with under-developed characterization and little suspense, while the tapas-style short scenes of the road trip solidify into a rather stodgily static second act.
Ruth Sutcliffe’s design includes a real Peugeot 205 revolving on stage to suggest the journey, with projections indicating different locations. Angus Jackson for the most part keeps the political debating lively, drawing attractive performances from his cast. Jamie Glover is a decent One Nation Tory genuinely worried about our democracy, Charlotte Lucas is a Lib-Dem embracing politics as compromise, Martin Hutson is an outsider sceptical about the establishment and Eve Ponsonby plays an amusing, if caricatured, cynical voice of youth.
Edgar has a serious purpose beneath his artificially contrived scenario, a warning against complacency in our democratic governance. But the one-dimensional If Only will probably have a shelf life shorter than the coalition government itself.