Tickets for Mike Leigh’s new play at the National sold out before it even had a title. For once, pre-show buzz is justified and, if lifestyle permits, I recommend a 9am date with the day-seat queue.
Knowing nothing in advance except for that title, the first surprise in ‘Grief’ is that it is remarkably funny. In a meticulous 1957 sitting room, Lesley Manville’s prim Dorothy tries painfully hard to please her chippy Irish cleaner, her ageing bachelor brother, Edwin and her teenage daughter Victoria (the marvellous Ruby Bentall, the definition of deadpan disdain with a ponytail).
There’s more unerring portraiture in her whiskery uncle Edwin (Sam Kelly), a genial cove awaiting retirement, who has evidently been on gardening leave from all profound emotional challenges for most of his habit-formed life. David Horovitch is a treat as a thigh-slapping GP who fancies himself as a wag, doubling over at his own jokes which tend to have a morbid subtext (‘All’s well that ends’ is a favourite). And Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham are a hoot as Dorothy’s smart married girlfriends, whose husbands – unlike hers – survived the war.
As always in Leigh’s methodical creations, the actors know precisely who they are. Each tight performance is the tip of an entire mysterious life. When the two hours of gradual revelation is up, you wish you could rewind and rewatch.
Leigh makes you laugh and laugh – until you cry. A mournful, mechanical sadness already lingers in the night-time rituals of his fading siblings, who stand in their too-tidy room with tiny glasses of sherry, and chime their nightly ‘chin chin’ beneath Dorothy’s dead husband’s photo.
When they croon snatches of wartime ballads like ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’, it is a rather beautiful way of showing the tenderness that they are too well brought up to express – but also a passing knell for an heroic, austere way of life that has already been gaily shelved by their friends, thanks to prosperity, TV and affordable aeroplane trips.
My main reservation about Leigh’s play is hard to explain without spoiling it: it concerns the point at which this unsparing but compassionate curator of characters switches to racking them beyond endurance. But a study of grief needs its primal howl as much as its civilised 6pm coping rituals. And Manville’s Dorothy, neatly aghast as she watches her life die from the inside, gives one of the most remarkable performances of an extraordinary career.