Carmel Morgan’s list of television writing credits includes Shameless, Reintarnation, Brookside and Coronation Street, and now she has turned her talent for sharp observations of British society to theatre. Her first stage play, Smaller, is both hilarious and moving, and at times, painfully close-to-the bone. Caroline Bishop sat on the fringes of a star-studded audience at the first night at the Lyric theatre.
Morgan wrote this three-hander for two of its stars, comedian Dawn French and singer Alison Moyet, who wanted to work together and asked friend and director of the play Kathy Burke to recommend a writer. The result is a play that suits the abilities and easy friendship of the pair to a tee.
French plays Bernice, an English teacher with addictions to chocolate and The Sopranos, who for the past 25 years has looked after her disabled, widowed mother Maureen (played by June Watson). Lifting her mother onto the toilet, dealing with her piles and sores and putting her to bed are all done with an accomplishment and no-nonsense attitude that can only come from years of practice. The practical needs of her mother have resulted in lack of social life and relationship for Bernice, but it is the mental demands of a lonely mother confined to the house and daytime telly that really exasperate Bernice. Watson is spot-on as the mother who is frustrated by her own situation and whose desire for verbal company in the evenings comes out through nagging and emotional blackmail of her daughter. French shows the all-too-realistic mixture of love and (partially) suppressed frustration towards her mother.
This could be a seriously depressing play, but Morgan and the cast have achieved the difficult task of making a painful subject incredibly funny. Everyone will recognise something of their relationship with their family in this piece, and the dialogue between French and Watson sparkles with observations that made the first night audience chuckle in recognition. Equally funny is Alison Moyet’s turn as Bernice’s sister Cath, a singer who years ago nicked off to the ‘Costa del Chlamydia’ to sing in a piano bar, leaving Bernice to deal with mum. The role creates some outright comedy moments – Moyet dressed in a chicken suit singing an easy-listening style medley of Robbie Williams songs left the audience in stitches.
Jonathan Fensom’s set is simple and effective, with a revolving floor enabling smooth scene changes and a curtain used to convey Cath’s distance from her mother and sister. The second act is darker and poignant, and focuses more on the resentful relationship between sister Cath and Bernice. However, the basis of quick wit remains, keeping the play from descending into schmaltz and, if anything, enhancing the moving moments.
Morgan’s play may be uncomfortable viewing for some who know the enacted situation all too well, but a cracking script and performances make Smaller not at all what you might expect.
Smaller is booking at the Lyric theatre until 6 May.