Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 15 April, 2008

James Joyce described his short story collection Dubliners as having been deliberately written in a style of “scrupulous meanness”. The phrase echoed through my head as I watched Peter Gill’s revival of his 1976 play Small Change. As both writer and director, sparse precision is Gill’s long suit, and he lets himself down when he strays too far from that path. He has staged this revival on an unadorned, square red stage, bare save for four unmatched old wooden chairs set at various forty-five-degree angles to the banks of audience. As the intercut memory-accounts begin, telling of Gerard and Vincent’s childhood in 1950s east Cardiff and the everyday attrition endured by their respective mothers, it is some time before actors break either physically from the chairs or dramatically into dialogue. It suddenly seemed to me that Gill’s work looked both backward to the working-class realist dramas of D.H. Lawrence (whose 1960s revivals at the Royal Court first brought Gill to wide attention) and forward to the fluid, fragmented stage-poems of writers such as Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp.
We jump between the lads’ childhood and adulthood, as they attempt to negotiate both their own difficult ages and the erosion of Vincent’s mother by her abusive-when-not-neglectful husband; at the end of the first act she is found to have committed suicide by drinking a lye solution. After the interval, the surviving Mrs Harte (a wonderful performance by Sue Johnston, right down to the casual rubbing of her hands to relieve poor circulation or arthritis) begins to lose a sense of her own place in the world, lamenting, “I want to take part”, while the returning Gerard (Matt Ryan) confronts Vincent (an eloquently stolid Luke Evans)about their young love that never quite was. It is during this phase that Gill overplays his hand by colouring Gerard too vividly as an authorial surrogate with a self-conscious turn of poetical phrasing. It is delicious for us to make the association ourselves between the red stage and young Gerard’s description of the colour of the sky when mine-slag was emptied on to the foreshore; when the adult Gerard makes a throwaway comment about his return to Argos, if we make the connection at all (the ancient Greek city was built on a plain of red earth), it seems almost a betrayal of the spareness which so potently indicates intensity of emotion through banalities and half-sentences. Most affecting in their inarticulacy are a sequence in which the two mothers dance with each other as a simple expression of solidarity and affection, and another in which the two boys repeatedly put off going indoors for their tea because they cannot admit their joy in each other’s company.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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