By Charles Spencer
With a title like Smaller and Dawn French and Alison Moyet as its stars you might think this was going to be a light comedy about a couple of fatties trying to lose weight. You would be wrong.
Smaller turns out to be the most remorselessly bleak play in the West End. Naturally, the star-studded first-night audience laughed uproariously at anything that might possibly pass for a joke, and there are some moments of gallows humour. But the overriding mood here is one of misery and despair and I salute French for extending her range and acting against type.
She plays Bernice Clulow, an English teacher at an Oxford secondary school who for the past 25 years has had to care for her widowed mother who is crippled with rheumatoid arthritis.
The relationship between them is as desperate as anything in Beckett. As mum witters incessantly on, demanding news of the outside world, fretting about crisp packets in the front garden and resorting to emotional blackmail whenever her spinster daughter pays her less than full attention, you sense two lives gone hideously to waste.
The play spares us nothing of the physical indignities of old age, as French's Bernice drags her mum out of her chair, wheels her to the bathroom and laboriously plonks her on the lavatory. Bernice's only relief is to flick the odd cathartic V-sign behind her mother's back or indulge in flights of sarcasm that you know are causing more harm to her than they are to her mother.
What makes it worse is that Bernice has a sister now working as a singer at hen nights on the Costa del Sol. Needless to say mum dotes on the absent Cath, who sends the occasional card, while taking the long-suffering and doggedly dutiful Bernice entirely for granted.
As a vision of hell it takes some beating, and it is rendered all the more scary when one remembers that there must be tens of thousands of people living almost identical lives of quiet desperation in real life.
The play is admittedly awkward in its structure. French asked Coronation Street script-writer Carmel Morgan to write a piece that would include roles for both her and her friend Moyet, best known as a fine pop singer. But the alternating scenes between the ghastly life at the family home, and Cath's desperate club act, including a hilarious Robbie Williams medley in which Moyet performs in a chicken costume, don't exactly cohere.
Kathy Burke's production only really comes together in the second half when Cath comes home, recriminations start flying and guilt exerts its remorseless grip.
French gives a superb performance as a witty, intelligent woman dragged down by circumstance. She almost entirely eschews her usual bubbly charm, creating instead a harrowing impression of a decent woman being corroded from within by thwarted bitterness.
June Watson is outstanding too as the manipulative mother who has sudden glimpses of the harm she is doing her daughter, and Moyet sings powerfully and acts up a storm in her big confrontations with French.
Smaller is a powerful play, but no one could call it much fun, even when Watson brings the house down by calling French "a fat f***er".