To be fair, Small Change at the Donmar Warehouse was never going to be the Whingers’ cup of cabernet.
We are easily enough confused as it is and Andrew’s memory plays enough tricks on him as it is without the added complication of plays getting in on the game.
It also didn’t help that – thanks to the swathes of poetic, descriptive monologues – Andrew spent most of Act 1 vacillating between oblivion and semi-wakefulness (but mostly the former). During his dozing, he had very strange dreams which on waking he believed momentarily to have been part of the play. In a strange way, writer/director Peter Gill might rather have approved.The play was firt performed in 1976. Apparently
When Peter Gill’s production opened at the Royal Court it was played on a 24-foot square, steeply raked stage in which the gradient was 1:8. The stage was constructed of plywood shattering board which came from a building site and was cantilevered so that, when lit, it appeared to be floating. In order to avoid being overly austere the surface of the floor was painted with a collage of images suggestive of the atmosphere of the play.
Designer Anthony Ward (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) seemed to have had few qualms regarding austerity. The Whingers eyed the bare stage suspiciously. It consisted of a beautiful blood red floor which admittedly appeared to be floating, being lit around the edges, but this served – in Phil’s eyes – merely to highlight the dust on the black wood lip beneath. If you must do minimalism you ought to to flick a duster around now and then (Andrew didn’t really notice this but then he lives in the 21st century equivalent of Steptoe‘s yard).
The exposed brick wall sported a single floating shelf decorated with a few small articles which even from the front row were barely discernible. Four wooden chairs (always worrying). This “set” desperately needed some decoration: what it needed was the giant West End Whingers banner which Andrew happened to have tucked under his seat, having picked it up from the party venue where it had been overlooked during Saturday night’s get-out.
Unfortunately there was no time to unfurl it and apply it to the wall before the lights went down and the four actors began their exploration of the life of two boys and their mothers in East Cardiff in the 1950s.
The acting was rather good, but the Whingers struggled as the play skipped around in time like the Tardis on acid making it difficult to work out what age Gerard and Vincent were supposed to be much of the time. There wasn’t enough change in either dialogue or performance between childhood and adulthood. But at least it didn’t plough the exaggerated adults-playing-children Blood Brothers furrow.
Sue Johnston, barely a rung on the ladder away from National Treasure status, was-as-expected excellent, possibly even a revelation.
Yes, it’s what’s called a memory play, like, well like…, the Whingers can’t actually remember any. Oh, yes, The Glass Menagerie so everything seen or reported is possibly not actually true, but at least this meant that the Whingers felt fully justified in having no idea what was going on.
There also seemed to be something in it about the inadequacy of words to express thoughts and feelings and ideas. To be honest, that’s not a promising starting point for a playwright in the Whingers’ book.
This wariness of words apparently extends to the stage directions:
Scene breaks in the action, indicating changes of mood and the repositioning of characters, are shown in the text by large spaces between speeches.
So it’s just as well that Gill himself was directing it.
And then there’s the poetry. We don’t do poetry. Our official line is that the best place for poetry is in books where it can be left unpurchased in a dusty corner of Waterstones.
Thanks to Mr Gill’s distrust of words the dialogue is irritatingly repetitive – lines are repeated over and over and over. “I’m bleeding..oh I’m bleeding”, “I’m sick of it..I’m sick of it”. It’s a bit like listening to an opera diva telling you she’s dying and you’re just willing her to get on with it. But it wasn’t just the actors who were repeating themselves, the noise of audience members’ yawns frequently broke the tedium.
Some of it made no sense at all: Vincent kept asking Gerard if he wanted to go for a drink, again and again. It’s a concept the Whingers didn’t understand as neither of them has ever had to be asked twice.
It’s not only the play that is repetitive. Nicholas Wright’s programme notes about Gill use Phil’s least favourite word in the English language – “community” – twice in the same paragraph. Phil, who, has no sense of the word (probably because he always associates it with “service” – a chapter in his life he prefers to forget) abhors it. “Shaudenfreude” he likes. “We’re open” is even better.
On the plus side Gill is also described as “highly opinionated and excellent at organising complicated parlour games”, this the Whingers do like.
Gill’s play apparently isn’t autobiographical but it does seem to wallow in its past. The Whinger’s don’t really understand this concept either and try to live in the future – they usually sit wondering how long it will be before they get to the bar.
No doubt some critics will find it poetic but its Welshness (which actually came and went quite erratically) reminded Phil of a low-rent Under Milk Wood but like Dylan Thomas’ work it plays like a piece more suited to radio.
And talking of critics. Nicholas De Jongh and Charles Spencer Charles Spencer’s evil twin possibly were both “in”.
During the interval, Mr De Jongh’s guest made the mistake of asking Andrew for a light and Andrew engaged him in conversation. Mr DJ joined them and a little light conversation ensued.
Determined for at least something interesting to happen during the evening, Andrew blurted out, “Actually, we have a confession to make”.
There was a pause.
“You’re the West End Whingers,” sighed Mr DJ.
“Who?” asked his friend.
NDJ: “They write poisonous things about me.”
Phil: “We were very kind about your play”
NDJ: “You weren’t kind, you were honest” (which, when you think about it, is quite a compliment from a critic)
Mr DJ then wanted to know which Whinger had expressed the view that it needed severe pruning.
Phil confessed and a mild squabble ensued as to the duration of said play.
“It was only 2 1/4 hours”
“No it wasn’t. It was two and three quarters”
“2 1/4 hours not counting the interval”
“Oh, well you have to count the interval”
and so on.
Anyway, for someone who thinks we say poisonous things about him, Mr DJ was a pretty good sport, even offering his interval pistachios around. Phil declined suspecting it was some kind of trap but Andrew accepted with some vague notion that he could develop it into some kind of cheap single entendre about having nibbled one of Mr DJ’s nuts but it never really came to anything.