Flashes of talent from a famously obscure playwright
Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph reviews the Peter Gill Festival at the Sheffield Crucible, 31 May 2002
The Sheffield Crucible is celebrating one of the unsung heroes of British theatre, Peter Gill. Peter who? you may well ask, for despite a distinguished career as both director and playwright, he has never become famous.
As a director, he was responsible for landmark productions of the plays of DH Lawrence at the Royal Court in the Sixties, established Riverside Studios in the Seventies and was in charge of the National Theatre Studio for much of the Eighties.
He has also written more than 20 plays and adaptations, beginning with The Sleepers Den in 1969 and winning some of the best reviews of his career (though not from me) only last year for The York Realist which transferred from the Court to the West End.
The Crucible is staging four of his earlier works in its studio, as well as a new play, Original Sin, a gay reworking of Wedekind's Lulu plays, which opens in the main house next week.
In an excellent opening lecture to launch the festival, the playwright Nicholas Wright posed the question of why he isn't more famous. "It is a fact that the media and the public, very reasonably, like a certain clear-cutness about the people they celebrate," he concluded, and Gill, "a mass of contradictions . . . does not, cannot, present himself to the world in conceptual terms."
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Sitting through three of his plays in a single day Small Change (1976), Kick for Touch (1983), and Mean Tears (1987) it struck me that there are several other reasons why Gill hasn't exactly set the world on fire.
He can be wilfully obscure, he is sometimes dull and repetitive, and there is a mixture of working-class chippiness and breast-beating gay sentimentality in his writing that I find deeply unappealing. By far the best of these plays is Small Change which, like much of Gill's work, draws directly on his own background he was born in 1939, and grew up in a working-class Catholic family in Cardiff.
Small Change tells the story of two mothers, and two sons, and the emotional links that bind them. The staging is spare, and the writing jumps backward and forwards in time as Gill nags away at the claustrophobic relationships between the characters the desire of the mothers to control their sons, the desire of the sons to break free, and the moment when it looked as though the boys' friendship might have blossomed into love.
The writing combines simplicity with sudden flights of lyricism, while the sense of pain, even doom, that haunts the action is at times almost unbearable.
Rufus Norris's production does the play proud with performances of blazing intensity and emotional candour from Susan Brown and Maureen Beattie as the mothers and Damian O'Hare and the astonishingly good James Loye as the sons, the latter, I suspect, a self-portrait of Gill himself. Watching Small Change, you really do feel that Gill's is a seriously underrated talent.
The other two pieces, however, strike me as failures. Kick for Touch, which lasts only 50 minutes, is the story of two brothers. One of them is married to Eileen, the other is having an affair with her, but this emotional tangle is presented in jumbled fragments, with several of the pieces missing altogether. I emerged feeling baffled.
Mean Tears is more comprehensible all too comprehensible, in fact. It concerns Stephen, an academic type who is head over heels in love with Julian, a druggy, public-school golden boy who constantly betrays him with girls. Then Julian whose ghastly seduction technique is reading his prospects long chunks of Shelley in a wistful voice gets bitten by love himself.
Paul Miller directs a witty production. Stephen Billington mercilessly nails his character's moral fecklessness and floppy-haired self-regard, while Christopher Fulford memorably captures the furious anguish of his plain, dyspeptic, highly intelligent, working-class lover (another self-portrait of Gill?). But the supporting characters are woefully underdrawn, and the play's theme, that love hurts and is desperately unfair, seems trite.
Watching these second-rate dramas, it is hard to escape the uncharitable conclusion that Gill, undeniably gifted though he is, has done much to deserve his obscure place in the theatrical firmament.
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