Small Change @ Donmar Warehouse, London

cast list
Sue Johnston
Lindsey Coulson
Luke Evans
Matt Ryan

directed by
Peter Gill
In Peter Gills subtle and layered play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1976, the landscape is created purely through language.

The stage itself is bare and painted a glossy, deep red. On the stage there are four chairs stood at angles to each other and a single shelf on the back wall, but nothing more. The world of the play, a rural Wales, now lost to time, is painted vividly with words.

Each of the chairs is occupied by a character. There are two middle-aged women, in aprons and sturdy shoes, and two younger men in more contemporary clothes: mothers and sons. They each rise to tell their story, the narrative floating backwards and forwards in time, the past recalled through the prism of the present. As they do so, their memories bleed into one another, overlapping, the edges blurring.

Gradually a world takes shape as we listen. The language is poetic and intricate, rich in detail. The men recall their childhood: their playground games, their strops and sulks, the time they lay down on the grass and watched the stars together. But these idyllic memories are tainted by the knowledge of future events, the inevitable losses and disappointments that will come to them, the grind of life.

The two women are very different. Gerards mother, Mrs Harte, is hardy and dependable, quietly devoted to her son. Vincents mother, Mrs Driscoll, is more fragile by far and prone to attacks of nerves. She confides in Mrs Harte that, at times, she struggles to find love for her children, even though she is outwardly a doting mother. Husbands and fathers feature only peripherally in this portrait, they remain distant figures throughout.

As the play progresses it focuses increasingly on the relationship between Gerard and Vincent. From fairly early on it is apparent that the connection between the two men is stronger than friendship and this becomes more explicit in later scenes when, meeting in the present, they discuss the love they once felt for one another. Of course it is too late by then, too much has happened, too much time has slipped by, and their love ends up being just one more lost thing on a pile of lost things. Throughout the play, Gill is describing a Wales that no longer exists, physically or socially. The pubs they drank have been knocked down, whole villages are gone and, with them, a way of life. But this is a source of poignancy rather than anger, and the play acknowledges the necessity of change.

Sue Johnston is excellent as the redoubtable Mrs Harte and the two men, Luke Evans and Matt Ryan, succeed in spanning the gap between insolent children and terse, life-hardened adults. Its a difficult balance to pull off but they make the plays various shifts in time and tone seem effortless.

Small Change contains numerous moments of lyrical beauty, but by being so dependent on words, a level of narrative push is lost. Gills production feels overly static and artificial at times and the intentionally repetitive quality of some of the dialogue can grate after a while. Its notable that one of the most moving moments is also one of the simplest: the two women dancing awkwardly together, laughing, unguarded. This rare moment of levity says so much, yet uses hardly any words at all.

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