If Only (Minerva Theatre, Chichester) – Carole Woddis.

Thirty seven years ago, David Edgar, wrote a play called Destiny.  In it, he drew parallels between Britain of the 1970s and Weimar Germany in the 1930s.

A warning play, about the connections between Britain’s historical past, racism and what the writer then saw as the creeping rise once again of fascism, well, not much has changed if his current analysis is to be believed.

Once more on the red alert path, immigration, he argues, has again become the scapegoat.  Recession, wage freezes and public sector cuts are biting.  And the Coalition is very possibly in its final throes.

Our most consistent political playwright for over three decades, Edgar’s premise is carried through an imaginative, quasi- fantasy scenario but one also based in hard fact.

It is 2010, just before the last election.  Three political activists/apparatchiks – one Lib-Dem, one Labour and a Tory MP – are grounded in Spain by the Icelandic volcano.  Furious speculations are discussed about possible permutations should the Election not produce a clear-cut majority, as well as how to get home.  They are joined at one point by well-connected gap-year trotting young Hannah, also stranded and sharp beyond her years.

Fast forward to 2014, a WW1 commemoration ceremony in Belgium and the three are together again, at Peter, the Tory’s request.

What ensues completely validates If Only as a drama of seriously important implications after a first half that though brilliantly handled by Edgar as a series of parries and thrusts of political bargaining is sometimes befuddling, stuffed full though it is with wit, finger-snapping facts, director Angus Jackson’s jaunty inter-scene Euro-chic music, a living, moving Peugeot car and the superb cast of Charlotte Lucas, Jamie Glover, Martin Hutson and Eve Ponsonby.

Suddenly, after the interval, we’re pitched into Drama, particularly the bringing into play of a self-imposed bargaining chip.  During their delayed trip back to the UK from the Icelandic ash-strewn continent, the three political opponents have exchanged career-breaking secrets prompted by a theory Hannah had put forward.  The theory of the 18th camel, she had explained, related to how an extra something is put forward to seek a solution to a conflict and once solved, that item is taken away and becomes invisible.

Peter is now foreseeing all kinds of extreme right-wing bogeys before him including a leadership challenge to Cameron and a Tory party hijacked by extremism.  The entrance of ultra-Right Tory loyalist Hannah, terrifyingly altered, would seem to  confirm Peter’s worst fears.

To save the nation and the country he loves, Peter is asking for a sacrifice from one of his fellow strandees.  The career-breaking secrets are aired as tools of persuasion.

Without wishing to give too much away, suffice to say that If Only ends on a knife edge.  Which way will they, the characters jump?

It’s a clever ploy on Edgar’s part if dramatically overly schematic.  But its force is undeniable because such is the personal, emotional and patriotic intensity of the last quarter of the play, we the audience are as implicated as the characters.  In the final analysis, it is we, the voters, who will have to decide.

The nation’s fate is in our hands, Edgar is saying – and saying it to a Chichester audience often mistaken for being chintz and blue rosetted down to the last man.

Only time will tell.  But, for the moment, If Only the drama has taken wing.  A must-see for anybody concerned about the direction in which we are heading and who still believes voting and the democratic process still count, Ibsen and David Harrower’s recent updating of Public Enemy notwithstanding! (see Londongrip review)

If Only is at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre to July 27; see www.cft.org.uk.

Carole Woddis © 2013.