When the Good Fairy hovered over the cot of Peter Gill, she must have been in a generous mood. Not only is he one of our finest directors, but he's also a gifted dramatist. Both talents are in evidence in this excellent Donmar revival of his 1976 play Small Change. In the Sixties, Gill was responsible for revelatory productions of the plays of D H Lawrence at the Royal Court. Lawrence's influence can be felt in Small Change in which (drawing on Gill's own background) two working-class Cardiff boys struggle to extricate themselves from the apron strings of their domineering mothers – the nervously wrecked Mrs Driscoll (Lindsey Coulson) and Sue Johnston's doughtier and stoically solicitous Mrs Harte.
Gill however discards the idea of a linear plot, favouring jumps backwards and forwards in time and he jettisons the bric-a-brac of naturalism. The four characters remain on the bare stage throughout with only the re-angling of four wooden chairs and Hugh Vanstone's eloquent lighting effects to register the changes. Gill has a keen ear for the niceties of working-class speech and he arranges the dialogue like a musical score with recurring motifs that communicate the psychological claustrophobia of these inter-dependent lives.
The echoes and the temporal flickering also summon up a sense of how the past is impossible to escape and its shaping immanence in the present. Matt Ryan's impassioned Gerard makes a break for it by moving south but in an almost Beckettian image he pictures his mouth prised open by his mother's words. And the play picks away at the scab of missed opportunity for love to blossom between him and his childhood friend Vincent whose awkwardness with his underlying sensitivity is movingly conveyed by Luke Evans.
Gill directs with a lovely purity of focus. Though the Welsh accents wobble, the cast do the piece proud in bringing out its haunting flashes of poetry ("Whose face did my grin start on? On whose will it end?") and its flurries of dour humour. The play contains one of the most touching and funny scenes in modern drama when the two mothers hum a song and dance together in their pinnies, a mischievously defiant moment of truancy from the domestic pressures that will drive one of them to take her own life. Warmly recommended.
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