Small Change

Peter Gill
Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
(2009)

Production photo

Small Change, Peter Gill's 1976 reflection on boyhood in post-war, working class Cardiff, originated, like all good stories, "from a series of ideas that wouldn't go away". It's had several successful revivals since the 70s, most recently at the Donmar last year. This production is the first time it's been staged in Cardiff in almost thirty years.

In a style which has come to typify Gill's work, there is no linear structure here. His text drifts through time, ebbing and flowing like the Cardiff tides; something Gill describes as "dislocated time". He builds up the lives of his characters through snapshot glimpses into childhood vistas. But his poetic text and his keen ear for the idiosyncrasies of the Cardiff dialect in the 1950s quickly submerges the audience into the world of these two neighbouring households. And Gill masters the truly evocative phrase, such as Gerard's characterisation of his childhood pursuits as "deliberately creating tedium".

As widely lauded as Small Change is, it's not to everyone's taste, however. Great swathes of the play are filled with what are essentially a series of disparate monologues, depriving the audience of watching any extended interplay between characters. This, coupled with the play's acrobatic chronology, can feel dated.

Perhaps more troublesome is that the politics which cradles the world of these characters are very particular to its era. It describes a decade when there was still a tangible and static British upper working class; one which Gill has described as largely "unchallenged" by the 1950s with the long, poorly paid apprenticeship. Gerard, Gill's "sensitive boy", whose as yet undeclared homosexuality was not only feared but also still outlawed, sits well within this context; refusing to live within the confines of his class. But his struggles have little resonance beyond the confines of the play.

Nevertheless this is an absorbing production from a strong cast of four. Kenny Doughty's Gerard is wonderfully uneasy and disengaged - every bit the philosopher and misfit. Ifan Meredith gives an astonishing performance as Vincent: gritty, grounded, made weary by his Mother's declining mental health, but buying into the expectations of those around him.

The women are magnificent. Helen Griffin as Mrs Harte and Lisa Palfrey as Mrs Driscoll give atmospheric, moving performances which seem to sum up an era. For all her grin-and-bear-it, post-war sturdy womanhood, there's no denying the soft underbelly to Griffin's Mrs Harte, for example. And the delicate, innocent femininity Palfrey brings to Mrs Driscoll makes her post-natal depression, her admission of her lack of emotional attachment to her children, all the more shocking.

Piece by piece, this impeccable production leads us through the splintered shards of the lives of these four individuals. Wrapped up in a textual style that perhaps won't suit everyone, this is nevertheless raw, dark stuff, simplistically staged and beautifully played.

At Sherman Cymru until April 11th

Reviewer: Allison Vale