The Small Things

Enda Walsh
Paines Plough
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2005)

The Small Things publicity image

Paines Plough, under new National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone, have carved out a place as leaders in the development of new writing.

This Other England seems a misnomer for their new season of four plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in that there are playwrights from three of the four corners of the British Isles. Quite why Wales has been neglected is unclear, especially when the company continues to work with Abi Morgan and Gary Owen.

The opening play is by London-based Irishman Enda Walsh, best known for another claustrophobic two-hander, Disco Pigs, which after cult stage success became a feature film. It features two elderly people on a long, narrow slice of stage space, symbolising the precariousness of their world. Literally nothing is grounded in Neil Warmington's set. The armchairs, tables and even ceramic knick knacks are all suspended.

From separate mountain tops, Bernard Gallagher's old man and Valerie Lilley's old woman initially deliver seemingly unrelated monologues punctuated by their alarm clocks, like chess players who come into action on a clock's striking.

She talks of her control freak father's manipulation of her life where everything runs by clockwork, while his subject is childhood lust for his mother.

The pair with their North Country accents became friends between the ages of 6 and 12, sharing a mutually embarrassing experience at a swimming pool. To this point, the story is opaque but genial enough.

Then The Small Things moves into the chilling territory explored by Caryl Churchill in Far Away. Into the story of burgeoning pre-teen love comes the man from the chip shop. He cuts tongues silencing the village's children, not metaphorically but literally.

Soon, we have descended into a terrifying society where genocide is the norm. Whether the setting is This Other England in the future or an imaginary country, ceases to matter. Walsh and his characters have the ability to send many chills down the spine as the full scale of the horror emerges, counterpointed by the love of the pair still strong so many years later. This endures despite their ignorance as to whether the other is even alive.

Under Miss Featherstone's direction, the performances are both excellent and, after the mysterious opening, the play achieves its goal of presenting genocide from an offbeat viewpoint that personalises the horrors. The Small Things does not always provide comfortable viewing but it should be seen.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher