In addition to much discussion of the play itself, Peter Gill’s Small Change at the Omnibus Theatre Clapham had the bar buzzing with anecdotes from people recalling what their mothers said to them as children, the conversations they had with friends when young and expressions of how different life was in ‘those days’.
Superbly merges passion, poetry and physicality.
The piece is usually categorised as a memory play, a genre that became identified after Tennessee Williams wrote a note in The Glass Menagerie saying ‘the scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic’. His words were made explicit through the character of Tom Wingfield when he says ‘the play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music…. I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it’.
All of these elements are to be found in Small Change. It is rooted in Gill’s own memories of growing up in Cardiff and is set on the east side around the docks, reclaimed marshlands and water edges of the city in the 1950s and the 1970s. It’s a story of the complex relationships that exist between neighbours, mothers, sons; two lads who grow up together. It is also a tale of traditions, moral values, working class entrapment and the marginal presence of fathers.
There is no single narrator but each actor has a say at various times about what is going on and in interpretation of situations and events. The story is deliberately non-linear, at times rapidly moving from one period of life to another: in the case of the boys as small argumentative children to questioning youths and troubled adults; for the mothers through the stress of making ends meet, raising a family, dealing with husbands and confronting tragedy. The mental dexterity required to create these rapid transitions shines through all members of the cast. Often it is reinforced by physical agility in movement sequences directed by Rachel Wise that make extensive use of Liam Bunster’s minimalist set. Deliberately abstract, with white back wall, it allows for the construction of numerous locations. The door-frame sized wooden rectangle and the three long lengths of matching rust-painted boxes, reminiscent of shipyard girders, are moved around the stage with ease by the actors as they create their new setting. More importantly it leaves the mind free to focus on the changing recollections of the characters and the imagination at liberty to create a personal visualisation.
With casting by Jane Frisby, George Richmond-Scott has directed with precision, bringing out the strengths of his actors who more than meet the demands of this difficult play. Sioned Jones, as Mrs Harte, captures the emotional ups and downs of motherhood and the steely fortitude required to see life through. In contrast, Tameka Mortimer, as her neighbour, Mrs Driscoll, is the woman who despite all her best efforts ultimately cannot cope and is overwhelmed by the demands of her circumstances. Gordon Vincent, as her son Toby, vehemently displays the frustrations of a man desperate to rid himself of the cloying pressures of catholicism, an unrewarding apprenticeship and the expectations of others. Which leaves Mrs Harte’s son and Toby’s lifelong friend Andy to complete the quartet. Rush Gerard gives a pivotal performance as the out-of-place lad who mis-reads the situation with his best friend and dreams of what might have been as he works his way through an existential crisis.
He has some of the most elegiac and poetic passages of a play that contains several elements of Dylan Thomas. It is his scenes that are often most enhanced by the lighting design of Ali Hunter and the sound designer of Lex Kosanke, that support and create moods throughout. His fast-paced delivery of the fleeting scenes on his train journeys conjure up a sense of pace and imagery reminiscent of that created by Auden in The Night Mail. Richmond-Scott himself has said of Gill’s work, “I was drawn to his incredibly vivid language and his gift for evoking place and childhood”. The influence of D H Lawrence, several of whose works Gill directed at the Royal Court, is also noticeable in the intense relationships and strong characterisation found in the play
It was also at the Royal Court that Small Change premiered in 1976. Its last London outing was at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008. This production, which superbly merges passion, poetry and physicality, is now firmly placed in the tradition of significant theatres taking up Gill’s remarkable play.