An all-female cast ably directed by the well-grounded Kathy Burke, produce a much 'bigger' and more rewarding end result than the cryptic title of this piece might indicate. Those with a cynical bent might even say that the title is contrived. And having seen this play, I can understand such a point of view because I'm actually no wiser about the title than I was before. No doubt we'll all be musing over it for some time to come. Thankfully, the plot is clearer and easier to grasp.
Widowed and handicapped septuagenarian Maureen is housebound, unable to move without assistance. Indeed, she needs someone to take her to the toilet, serve her food, and even scratch her itching nose. She relies on visits from a nurse - who spends most of her time guzzling toast between house calls - as well as her local parish priest, but the majority of her care is provided by daughter Bernice, played by Dawn French. A schoolteacher by day, Bernice has been looking after her Mum for a quarter of a century and has come to recognise herself (justifiably) as a 'pack horse'. The strain shows. And no wonder, because Bernice not only has to perform unenviable tasks such as pushing Mum's piles back into a comfortable position, but has to endure her continual prattling about odiously mundane events in the neighbourhood, her obsession for removing litter from the garden and her eminently forgettable commentary on the minutiae of daytime TV.
Although most of the action centres on Maureen and Bernice's repetitive existence, another character completes the family triangle. Maureen's other daughter Cath (played by Alison Moyet) has escaped the gruelling caring chores by taking up a job as a singer, entertaining English hen parties on the Costa Del Sol. But even her life is not all that she might have hoped for, and the play essentially describes three characters who are all riddled with guilt, frustration and for Bernice at least, not a little in the way of bitterness.
By chance, I caught an episode of the 'Vicar of Dibley' the other night - the TV comedy series that provided Dawn French with a successful, though unusual, vehicle for her immense talents (no pun or joke intended). Viewing the series again, it reminded me of French's instinctive ability clearly demonstrated in her seemingly effortless, but nevertheless razor-sharp, comic timing. And here she's on pretty stupendous form, but then the material is certainly written in her favour, helping her draw out the humour in almost every sentence and gesture. That's not to say that she has all the best lines. June Watson as Mum has more than her fair share (as well as a much bigger share of the dialogue), and she drew the biggest laugh of the evening when she unexpectedly used an expletive directed at Bernice - one could almost hear some of the audience choke.
French doesn't dominate proceedings, but it's a very strong performance that demonstrates much more than just carefully-timed humour. At the play's sad and somewhat sentimental conclusion, recriminations and bitterness flood out from French's Bernice in a vitriolic attack on her sister. It's keenly played and tense drama, diffused by an equally forceful and well acted rebuttal from Moyet, who also wrote and performs the songs in the show.
June Watson also comes up trumps with a striking and spirited portrayal as the handicapped Maureen. Watson employs a vocal quality that carries a kind of irritating whine at the end of sentences which served to underline the immense strain of the confined and claustrophobic relationship. No wonder Bernice cries out 'Make it stop!' But it's not just her voice which irritates - there's the obsession with what the locals are up to - even if it happens to be something as innocuous as someone carrying a briefcase. And then there's the guilt which Maureen lays on Bernice - 'you've got more time for the Mafia than you have for me' she says.
Jonathan Fensom's design is suitably economical - simple furniture, a net curtain and a bare wall with a crucifix is about the size of it. But it's enough, because the focus of our attention has to be on the crackling dialogue and how the characters interact. A revolve allows the scenes to flow into each other, for example when Bernice takes Mum to the bathroom, and the net curtain not only serves as the way Maureen spies on and keeps up-to-date with events in the outside world, but provides the 'distance' between the family home and scenes with daughter Cath speaking to us and her distant family from Costa Del Hen.
There's more than a germ of northern humour about the writing in this piece, which sounds in places like some of Alan Bennett's work - his monologues in particular. But since playwright Carmel Morgan lives in Liverpool and spends a good deal of her time writing for the long-running soap, Coronation Street, it's hardly surprising. Her play has realistic, pithy and funny dialogue that makes us laugh even though we want to cringe or cry - indeed I could hear the audience moaning in shame at some of the lines whilst laughing at the same time.
Well acted and directed, 'Smaller' gives us a humorous but poignant account of the kind of hellish existence which both carers and cared-for have to live out on a routine and prolonged basis. With an ever-ageing population, it's situations like these that many more of us are going to have to face. 'Smaller' gives us a taste of just what's in store.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Starved to the point of emaciation, of both incident and wit". CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Smaller is a powerful play." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Kathy Burke's adroit production, with a strangely mixed evening." BENECT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It's not until the second that...the temperature of Kathy Burke's production moves towards the high-fever mark." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Affecting production." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Slow, obvious and banal."
A Review by one of our readers Gary Mack
The story is about a mother and daughter relationship with the mother (June Watson) being confined to a wheelchair and the daughter (Dawn French) being confined to a life long struggle of a carer.
Maureen and Bernice are only one part of the equation there is another daughter who has left the family home for a show business career! Cath phones from time to time but does not realise just how hard the caring for a loved one has become. The constant threat of Maureen planning to go in to a nursing home, telling Bernice that she wants the security and haven that nursing homes provide. Then telling Bernice that its her fault that she is in this situation and to get out and enjoy herself, then talking about totally irrelevant things, watching the neighbours. The visit of Cath (Alison Moyet) during a very strong argument only adds the pressure to Bernice, who finally cracks, with Cath being on the receiving end.
The play is directed by Kathy Burke with such immense attention to detail of Bernice's daily routine, the struggle, the laughter and the tears. The story is strong as are the performances. I thought Ms French would steel the spotlight with her magnetic stage presence, however June Watson's performance is worth the visit alone, you can physically see the deterioration - a great performance.
Alison Moyet's role is somewhat 'smaller' than that of her co-actors but she does provide the music and lyrics for this piece which is certainly fitting for the play, in fact I would like to have heard more. She has a great voice which is used to portray her character.
A very clever and moving play and anyone who has cared for a loved one will empathise...
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