Peter Gill is an unsung hero of modern British theater no longer, thanks largely to the championing of Michael Grandage. An actor-director with the Royal Court in the 1970s and founder of the Riverside and National Theater Studios, Gill remains an active and skilled director of new plays and classics. But his playwriting remained little known until 2002, when Grandage — then a.d. of the Sheffield Crucible Theater — devoted a monthlong season to Gill’s work. Now Grandage’s red-hot Donmar Warehouse hosts the first London production in a quarter-century of Gill’s best-known play, “Small Change,” written in 1976 and directed by the writer.
This is a signature Gill event: like most of his scripts, the play is set within — and takes as one of its principal themes — the truncated horizons of Welsh Catholic post-war working class life. The key emotional undertow is a current of desire between two central male characters, which is finally articulated — perhaps overarticulated — in a climactic showdown. And Gill’s storied ability to direct detailed, emotionally pitch-perfect performances is everywhere on show from a superb company.
On a blank stage with four chairs, the actors — playing two mother-son pairs — initially sit and talk about their pasts, their stories criss-crossing and jumping back and forth in time. Gill is often likened to Pinter in the spareness of his language, and indeed he makes few concessions to traditional linear narrative. He is undertaking a difficult task — to describe and dissect the dependences and interconnections between people who lack the articulacy and self-awareness to understand themselves.
The mothers meet only briefly for kitchen chats about their husbands and children. The notion of honoring their own emotional lives is made present only by its absence, save a moving moment in which the women dance together, briefly revealing their hunger for intimacy.
Mrs. Harte (Sue Johnston) mainly spends her time chasing Gerard (Matt Ryan) around the house, a too-obvious visual metaphor for her attempts to control him. Mrs. Driscoll (Lindsey Coulson) is more absent from the life of Vincent (Luke Evans) because she’s barely present in her own.
All the early exposition, however, feels a little like throat-clearing toward the long scene in which Gerard, now an adult visiting from an unnamed elsewhere, confronts Vincent about past moments of physical intimacy, and the two square off about whether a life together could ever have been possible.
The scene is powerful and brilliantly acted but somewhat weakened by an unprecedented burst of emotional articulacy from Gerard (“If you’re like me the future is as fantasied as the past”). Gill has Vincent acknowledge that this level of self-awareness seems to come out of nowhere but cannot dispel the sense that the playwright himself has intruded too obviously into his narrative.
While play and production are impressive, they also indicate why Gill’s writing has had little impact on the American scene. The overriding lack of possibility he depicts feels deeply foreign to the American imagination. The play thus provides a compelling contrast with its immediate predecessor at the Donmar, Arthur Miller’s “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” whose titular character struggles to accept the apparent limitlessness of his ability to succeed — a quintessentially American story.
While Americans tend to relate to big canvases, big changes, Gill’s entire point is that Britain shortchanged these characters, making them incapable of hoping for more than the minimum for themselves.