Theatre Review: Tragic roundabout
Wednesday 19 May 1999
ONE OF Peter Gill's most influential achievements as a director was to demonstrate the stunning genius of DH Lawrence as a playwright.
Watching Alasdair Ramsay's beautifully acted, rhythmically arresting revival of Small Change, Gill's drama first produced at the Royal Court in 1976, you can see why Lawrence's work spoke so piercingly to him. Gill's equivalent of Nottingham is the working-class terraces of post-war Cardiff. The intensity and mutual dependency of the mother-son bond is given a homosexual dimension in the way the play focuses on the struggle of two mothers and two sons for emotional survival in a world of back-to- back grates, hiding from the rent man, riskily swimming out on the tide and watching the whole sky go red when they tip slag on the foreshore.
Though the play spans from the Fifties to the Seventies, Gill is not interested in a neat chronological haul. Instead, the play heightens a sense of the complexities of coping with one's psychic and cultural inheritance. Instantaneous shifts between present and subjective past allow us to see memory and desire, current configurations, and the events that ironically shaped them. The four characters remain on the gravelled stage throughout, able to resurrect from the sprawl of death, or swap emotional positions, as in the achingly sad sequence near the end when Vincent (Richard Elis), the male who remained, keeps begging Tom Bevan's superb Gerard, the one who left, to come in for a drink. This inverts the hierarchy of childhood and adolescence when Gerard, besotted by him, would plead with his friend to stay out playing and we perceive this shift through the scene's temporal flickering. The variously unequal but potent and binding love between these two men is communicated here with an honesty that could only be achieved in a mode that allows the working classes poetry as well as prose.
For this production, the proscenium arch arrangement of the Haymarket has been adapted so that the audience sits on either side of the action. The nagging circularity of much of the characters' thinking and feeling - "You'll be the finish of me. You will," is the refrain of Kate Dove's moving, increasingly desperate Mrs Harte, always provoking the set, stalemating response "You'll see to that, won't you" - is further stressed here by the children's roundabout which is the sole and telling feature of Elroy Ashmore's fine design. Gerard's many train journeys - conveyed with flashing underlights and fast backpedalling - consequently looked to be what they are: illusions of escape.
"Whose face did my grin start on? On whose face will it end?" Gerard asks in one of the play's many brilliantly startling rephrasings of common preoccupations. To what extent should one stunt the present by "keeping faith" with the moral horrors of the past (the suicide, say, of Di Botcher's lovely Mrs Driscoll), even if one knew what the phrase meant? As vividly as Beckett, Gill can make you understand what it feels like to have your mother inside your head, pushing against your teeth to prise your mouth open so that it can become her posthumous vehicle. Highly recommended.
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