Nicholas de Jongh
Since 1969, Peter Gill has written a remarkable sequence of memory-plays. Many of them link the detail of 1950s Catholic, working-class life in Wales with the experience of gay desire that never finds expression and fulfilment there or elsewhere.
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. Small Change lives up to its title and gets locked in a repetitive, emotional cycle.
True to the play’s expressionistic form, with memory performing its familiar tricks and constantly taking jerky leaps backwards and forwards in time, designer Anthony Ward strips a red-floored stage of realism’s reassuring props, apart from four mobile kitchen chairs. The scene is east-side Cardiff, where 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. Their unseen, unloved husbands and several children are big burdens.
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. These boys never cut the mysterious ties that have bound them from when they went bird-nesting and swimming until two decades later, when Vincent has married, separated and become a father. Gerard, locked in angry, mutual dependence with his mother, keeps coming home from a metropolitan life that leaves him ill and unhappy.
With piercing eyes and an air of stoic but ineluctable pain, the marvellous Sue Johnston makes Mrs Harte a martyr to causes she cannot understand while Matt Ryan’s Gerard is fired by grief and fury in Gill’s transfixing last scene. He faces up to Luke Evans’s 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.