The title of Carmel Morgan’s first stage play does not, of course, refer to one of its stars, Dawn French, whose girth seems to expand in proportion to the mirth she generates in this generous, big-hearted and often depressingly bleak comedy that touches on the small change of family relationships while making some surprisingly serious points about the loss of faith in an increasingly atomised society.
French and her co-star Alison Moyet are well matched in Kathy Burke’s nicely judged production as sisters in name only: Bernice, the overweight, over-stressed and over-diligent one who has devoted 25 years of her life to caring for their disabled mother while juggling a day job as an English teacher; and Cath, the ambitious one who flew the nest as soon as she could to follow her dream of becoming a singer but now only communicates by sending the odd postcard home.
Caught between her two unmarried girls in a twilight world of incontinence pads, painful leg ulcers, endless gossip about life beyond the net curtains and home visits from the nurse and the local Catholic priest, their elderly wheelchair-bound mother Maureen (June Watson, surely the real star of the evening), is totally dependent on fat and frumpy Bernice, yet still holds a torch for the absent Cath, who, inevitably, comes home. Out of this domestic triangle, Morgan creates a deceptively simple comedy about three lost souls whose lives have almost, but not quite, wasted away.
No doubt it’s her experience as a writer on Coronation Street and Shameless that gives Morgan’s characters a common-touch edge - even if her construction is a bit wobbly, with Moyet’s Cath only seen during the first act in cut-away scenes on the outer showbiz fringes where she sings to the punters of some dreadful Spanish holiday resort.
Best of all are the spectacular slanging matches between French and Watson, when seething everyday resentments boil over into a red-hot brew of recrimination and long-held bitterness. Like a female Steptoe and Son, this widowed mother and spinsterish daughter relationship is steeped in pathos and it works a treat.
Yet even when wittering mum has pressed all of Bernice’s sensitive buttons, there's always a discernable bond of affection between them. Apart from anything else, you're left in no doubt that it takes genuine love to be able to pull down your mother’s knickers, settle her on the loo and after a reassuring plop of poo, slip on some rubber gloves, wipe her bum and then push back her piles. Now if that sounds a tad on the yucky side, well at least it rams home the point - as does what’s described in the programme as “strong language”, which is often used to sum up how hurtful words can hide a lifetime of unhappiness.
- Roger Foss
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Our official Whatsonstage.com critic Michael Coveney – as well as our photographer & other journalists – was denied press access to this production because, according to a show spokesperson, producers at Phil McIntyre Entertainment were unhappy with our news coverage, dating from December 2004, questioning the pricing policy for their previous West End production, Victoria Wood musical Acorn Antiques (See News, 2 Dec 2004). That does not influence Whatsonstage.com’s opinion of any of the cast or creative team of Smaller or our review of this production, which we have sourced through external channels.