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Review Round-up: Welcome Change at Donmar

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Director-playwright Peter Gill’s revival of his own play Small Change opened on Tuesday (15 April 2008, previews from 10 April) at the Donmar Warehouse, where it runs until 31 May. The play premiered at the Royal Court in 1976. This is the first London production since Gill revived it at the National Theatre.

The four-hander centres on the relationships between two working-class boyhood friends from 1950s Cardiff and their mothers. Focussing on the tragedy of unspoken emotion, it depicts the struggles of the boys as they grow into adulthood to free themselves from the apron strings and face up to the true nature of their feelings for each other.

Gill - whose other plays include Cardiff East, Kick for Touch, Certain Young Men and The York Realist - is now known as much for his directing as his writing. His directing credits include Days of Wine and Roses at the Donmar in 2005, Scenes from the Big Picture, Gaslight, The Voysey Inheritance and The Importance of Being Earnest, currently running at the Vaudeville Theatre and starring Penelope Keith.

Opening night had plenty of A-list glamour in the form of Kylie Minogue (See 1st Night Photos, 16 Apr 2008), but did the attendant critics feel Gill’s revival had star quality? Reactions were generally very positive, with many citing the “pitch-perfect performances” of the cast and the rich poetry of Gill’s “little masterpiece” as the primary strengths. Particular praise was reserved for the “marvellous” Sue Johnston, for portraying small-town Welsh mother Mrs Harte as “a martyr to causes she cannot understand”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – ‘Peter Gill’s Small Change comes up a treat in the author’s production, his third since a remarkable premiere at the Royal Court in 1976 (the second was at the National in 1983) … The new cast make the piece entirely their own ... The characters are sculpted in an abstract landscape which designer Anthony Ward floods with red, a colour (like most colours) banished in the old Royal Court post-Brechtian era of austerity … The dialogue switches around in time, and the two boys, Gerard (Matt Ryan) and Vincent (Luke Evans), are seen at either end of their relationship, Vincent having “betrayed” a period of innocent ecstasy by joining the Navy … Gerard’s mother Mrs Harte (Sue Johnston) and Vincent’s mother Mrs Driscoll (Lindsey Coulson) share domestic disappointments and, we gradually realise, a tragic suicide when the pressure builds up. But the mainspring of the evening is the tension between sons and mothers in a painfully real working-class setting of selfish husbands, little money, and the limited pleasures of a nostalgic dance to an old remembered tune … Gill’s little masterpiece is another Under Milk Wood, without the jokes or the ribaldry, but pregnant with a similar dark Welsh intensity.’
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – ‘Peter Gill's plays have been described as one of British theatre's best-kept secrets. Michael Grandage, having mounted a Gill season at Sheffield Crucible in 2002, now hosts one of this writer-director's best plays: a vivid reminder, in the author's own immaculate staging, that working-class realism can be poetic, swift and resonant … Gill's most radical device is to apply the kind of temporal fluidity we associate with the cinema of Resnais and Antonioni to Welsh working-class life: the action moves between adult present and boyhood past with seamless ease. And, even though Gill is dealing with a tribal culture, his gift of total recall taps into collective memory… With only four actors, four chairs and a raked platform, Gill's production beautifully conjures up a world of lost passion. Matt Ryan's Gerard is neatly contrasted with Luke Evans' more solidly rooted Vincent. Sue Johnston lends Gerard's mother a wonderful beaky, querulous resilience … while Lindsey Coulson conveys all the quiet, pinafored despair of her child-ridden neighbour, tethered to an unseen brute.’
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – ‘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 … 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. 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 … and its flurries of dour humour … Warmly recommended.’
    • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - ‘Peter Gill's Small Change is one of the least ostentatious pieces of theatre I've ever seen ... As with Beckett, there's something about the austere, incantatory quality of Gill's writing that disturbs and thrills, intensifying our appreciation of life's mystery and difficulty. Two housewives, Mrs Harte and Mrs Driscoll, are chatting across what we imagine to be their garden fences, reserved yet furtively frank. The apples of their eyes - their sons Gerard and Vincent - are out and about, resisting summonses indoors, swimming where they shouldn't. This is childhood remembered, a now vanished Cardiff recalled - but the golden hues of quaint talk and comforting routines swiftly tarnish as we pick out more details. The acting, under the meticulous eye of Gill as director, is impeccable. Sue Johnston plays Mrs Harte, neat and respectable in floral dress and apron, eyes at times beakily alert, then glazing over with faraway dreams. Gill writes with compassion for all four, but there's an unmistakable note of anger, too, about the dead weight of dissatisfaction that post-war housewives hung around their children's necks like unwanted medals. Highly recommended.’
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – ‘Small Change, which premiered in 1976, is directed by the author in characteristically austere style, with pitch-perfect performances. It strikes me now, though, as one of his less rewarding works. Gill’s predilection for stream of consciousness monologue and extraneous scene-painting, in which he gives vent to a poetic voice that belongs to him rather than the character speaking, is a stumbling-block ... Sue Johnston’s Mrs Harte and Lindsey Coulson’s fine, emotionally disturbed Mrs Driscoll live next to each other in impoverished dejection and act as each other’s personal support-systems … The women’s pressured lives — their drunken, errant unsupportive males an anxiety — are conveyed with beautiful, taut economy and never more so than when they dance together. Their scenes of confiding and complaining run in counterpoint to those of staunch friends from childhood, Mrs Harte’s mother-fixated son Gerard and Mrs Driscoll’s Vincent … Matt Ryan’s Gerard is fired by grief and fury in Gill’s transfixing last scene. He faces up to Luke Evans’ Vincent, who makes a superb hunk of pent-up, incoherent longing, and owns up to what both men have always known but never acknowledged — that they could and should have been lovers.’

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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