Memory plays don't come much more fractured or fractious than Small Change, the 1976 Royal Court entry that has been beautifully revived at the Donmar by its author, Peter Gill . A sort of wild Welsh riff on The Glass Menagerie in which all four of its characters in some crucial way go down for the count, the play, and Gill's wounding production of it, continue a hot streak at the Donmar, whose programming of late under the theater's artistic director Michael Grandage has rarely been quite this eclectic - or this strong. Not that Tennessee Williams mixed times and tempi quite so elaborately as is deftly managed by Gill, whose authorial touch falters only during a somewhat overwritten second half. (Play would be ideally served if pruned by about ten minutes and performed without an intermission.) By that point, however, you're likely to be so absorbed in the narrative, and transfixed by a superlative quartet of players, that Gill's more fanciful poetic rides emerge as the entirely acceptable price one has to pay for a play in effect about the slow, protracted suicide that accounts for all too many people's lives.
The first half is largely given over to the two women of the piece - a pair of variably nagging, fretful, working-class mothers living on the east side of Cardiff (Welshman Gill's home city) in the 1950s. Mrs. Harte (Sue Johnston ) chases son Gerard (Matt Ryan ) around a red-floored stage marked out in Anthony Ward's exquisite design simply by four chairs that get deployed in different ways and by a single shelf adorning the Donmar's now-celebrated back wall, here brightly painted for the bleak occasion. They spar about who hates their lives the most even as their perhaps overfond affection for one another is equally clear: Gerard wants to run away with his mom but can't help firing hateful remarks at her, while she, in turn, counts her son's grey hairs and wonders just when he will get romantically snapped up .Their neighbors in the house on the other side of the adjoining wall are Mrs. Driscoll (the surpassingly sad-eyed Lindsey Coulson) and her seemingly infinite brood, of whom we meet only Vincent (Luke Evans, late of Rent-Remixed), a sulky, good-looking chap whose spoken refrain, I'm going out, sounds for all the world like Tennessee Williams's Tom. We follow the two mothers as they trade notes on topics ranging from their husbands (the unseen Mr. Driscoll is a loveless drunk) and the efficacy of women voting (something of which Mrs. Driscoll doesn't approve), while the two boys develop a friendship that takes them from age nine into adulthood and back again, the specific dynamics of their rapport saved for a long set-to in the second act that marks out relative newcomer Ryan as a young actor of altogether startling intensity.
One might wonder at the advisability of a staging that at one points finds the two distinguished actresses - the wiry, kindly Johnston is a considerable TV name in the UK - having to lie motionless on the stage for an extended period of time. But that, in turn, allows for a bruising reckoning between the clearly homosexual Gerard - though the word gay is never mentioned - and the object of his volatile affections, Vincent, whose repeated offer to Gerard to come for a drink seems to open a window on a possible way forward that Gerard, for reasons we discover, cannot embrace. The title pays oblique homage to lives large with ambition unfolding in small, cramped circumstances and also to the power of income, or lack thereof,on personality: there's a disturbing moment where Gerard shrieks the single word money at a mother whose own old age is movingly followed through on as the play nears its close. It's Gerard, too, who refers to the past as someplace uns