If Only

David Edgar
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Jamie Glover, Charlotte Lucas and Martin Hutson Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Jamie Glover as Peter Credit: Catherine Ashmore

A Labourite, a Lib Dem and a Tory meet in an airport. Sounds like a typical pub joke, but the subject matter of Edgar's play, exploring the lead-up to the formation of the present coalition government, is deadly serious, although he makes sure the audience finds plendy to laugh about.

The script is witty and very clever, sometimes bafflingly so, especially with the rapid, quick-fire dialogue, and the time frame is very much 'now'. A week is a long time in politics and Edgar doesn't expect the play to last long as events change constantly. Keeping it topical meant writing and re-writing while hoping that not too much would change before the end of its run.

It is 2010 in Malaga airport, the day after the first televised prime ministerial debate, and the volcanic ash cloud which erupted all over Europe has caused travel chaos and grounded all flights. Peter (Conservative backbencher) and Jo (Liberal Democrat staffer) have been to the same wedding and Sam (a Labour special advisor) joins them having been on a climate change study in India. Edgar has chosen advisors for his fictional characters, but those they refer to are very real. They are all desperate to get home.

Beginning with inconsequential small talk while trying to organise transport, they move on to a discussion of what might happen in the event of a hung parliament and whether a little manipulation could have been applied to arrange the partners in a possible coalition. The parties are so overlapping in their policies and manifestos in an effort to follow public opinion that there woud be no way to choose between them.

They talk impulsively, excitedly, and with a candour rare in politicians, saying things it would not be wise to broadcast, and to make sure none of them reveal the conversation they form a pact. Each has a secret which would destroy their career if it was leaked, and they write it down and entrust it to another as insurance.

'A' level student, Hannah, arrives and they are concerned that she might have heard their conversation, but she joins them on their journey to the channel ports, and it turns out that this young lady is much smarter than they thought.

Ruth Sutcliffe has provided a backdrop of constantly changing flight boards which part to allow a clapped-out Peugot 205 convertible to emerge and take centre stage on the revolve, giving the opportunity for a little light relief with breakdowns and bickering on the way. The backdrop then charts their journey before act 2 and a flash forward to 2014 and a Belgian cemetery where a ceremony marking the centenary of World War One is about to take place. A general election is looming, UKIP is hovering threateningly and one of the four is about to sacrifice his or her career for the sake of the nation.

It's all a bit stereotypical and very wordy, but the concept of a situation where each party member holds a career-destroying secret if revealed adds intrigue and interest to the conclusion, and the final scenes show a perhaps surprising suggestion of integrity and morality, something else which seems rare in politicians.

The cast (Charlotte Lucas, Jamie Oliver, Martin Hudson and young Eve Ponsonby) do wonders with the mountains of rapid-fire dialogue, giving it humanity and realism, with Angus Jackson at the helm keeping it all on track.

Those of a political or mathmetical bent (cue the camel story) should love this play, and most of the audience found it hilarious, but I found it significant that the loudest laugh was for a missing apostrophe.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

Are you sure?