By Max Seddon Samuel Beckett’s influence on Peter Gill is obvious and acknowledged. Beckett as touchstone, in fact, for the drama sans drama is so common in the last thirty years that it goes beyond cliché somewhere, becoming a quasi-religious absolute truth. And yet, this somber little meditation over the kitchen sink from a Welsh slough of despond is more existential and, as far as I’m concerned, more profound than anything the Irishman ever wrote.
Childhood neighbors Vincent and Gerard are looking back to the miserable banality of their and their embittered mothers’ lives in the miry torpor of working-class 1950s Cardiff. Twenty years later, while so much has changed, nothing has happened. This life is so real, and yet so lifeless, the very essence of the dying process itself. With nothing left but their memories, they flit in and out of them in search of a comforting, familiar pain.
Gerard’s mother (Christa Brodie) is uneasy with the ease in which she can tranquilize herself. “When I was your age I had three or four kids,” she repeats to her son, unable and unwilling to come fully to grips with the gulf between them. Her sadness is not that of pain suffered but that of the onlooker to a tragic act, without the experience or the capacity to feel it herself. “I wish I could cry like that,” she says of Vincent’s mother, who in Ellen Buddle’s care undergoes a slow disintegration.
Mrs. Driscoll’s absent husband and wayward son get the better of her resolve, and Buddle looks as angry as she does upset watching the boys from her chair in purgatory. Buddle has one of those strange, captivating faces that can pull off a little boy and a Russian babushka with equal aplomb, and she puts it to excellent use here.
Archie Davies’ auspicious debut also deserves a mention; doubtless a starry future awaits him. But what really makes the play so great is the dull glow that sneaks out of it and creeps over you without your noticing. Like James Salter’s prose, Gill’s dialogue can break your heart without ever being consciously “lyrical” or going for firework language. Norris’ troupe justly never overbear onto the script and spoil the magic.
Of course, they are men, not Gods. Thanks especially to Brodie’s half-on, half-off Oirish drawl, I had no idea where we were until Norris told me afterwards. The symbolism and the gay touches, especially when Vincent and Gerard are looking at the stars, are a smidge obvious sometimes. As the latter, Alex Worsnip’s statements to the audience are laboredly, unsuccessfully poetic, though they are redeemed by the delicate childish sensitivity he shows playing younger ages. And it did take me a while to work out what was going on; it felt like an AA meeting at first.
Yet having seen half the play, in open rehearsal, a week and a half before first performance, I’ve truly been lost for six hundred words. Small Change has an elusive, ethereal blank beauty, rare and precious as a gem. This from a play that brazenly violates every rule in the book, not least by a near total lack of pace, trite, overworked themes, and one cardinal, cardinal sin, the proletarian blackface minstrel act of Oxford students playing salt-of-the-earth types. No small achievement to overcome. This is not to say, now, that anyone involved is a visionary genius. I can’t tell. By its nature this is beauty whose practitioners may not be aware of exactly what makes it so gorgeous and may be unable to repeat it again; in which case all the more reason to see it now. Go.      Dir. Barney Norris
O’Reilly, 7.30pm Weds-Sat
4th Week

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