Review: Small Change, Donmar Warehouse

Partly based on his own experiences as a boy in Cardiff, Small Change is one of Peter Gill’s earlier plays, revived here at the Donmar Warehouse. It covers the efforts of two boys in 1950s Cardiff to remove themselves from their mothers’ apron strings, but also with the complex relationship between the two, struggling to grasp their true feelings for each other in a world where homosexuality is incomprehensible and illegal. But as it is a memory play, we also see the characters later in life and the action flits around the timeline showing how the past and present are inextricably linked and indeed their impact on the future.
The extremely simple staging, just four chairs at random angles, a floating shelf on a brick wall at the back and an unadorned red raked stage means that the focus is squarely on the prose which is heavily poetical. But whilst there is no doubting the quality of the acting onstage and the obvious emotion invested in the depiction of unresolved homosexual yearning and the drudgery of housewifery, it rarely fully captivated the attention as it is just so very lyrical and Gill’s writing often veers to the elliptical and obtuse.

This is partly due to the structure: the play constantly shifts around in time with repeated lines and recurring motifs echoing around but instead of being moving, I found myself getting increasingly irritated with the repetition. And there seemed something a little artificial about the evocation of working class language, a romanticism which was a little too rose-tinted for my liking.
The acting is predictably strong, led by the incomparable Sue Johnston with her stoic and strong Mrs Harte contrasted with Lindsey Coulson’s much more nervous and despairing Mrs Driscoll, struggling under the weight of a large family and brutal husband. Matt Ryan and Luke Evans had a lovely chemistry as the two boys who never quite managed to chase the dream of love between the two, each following their own paths. On the one hand it was nice not to see full-blown ‘pretending to be children’ acting from these two but equally, the subtlety with which it was played meant that it was never abundantly clear just when we were in the storyline.
Dull and uninvolving feels too harsh a description for this production given the strength of the acting, but I would struggle to recommend this to people as it ended up being quite a difficult play to like.

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