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.
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Now this is nearing the end of its run, and sold-out so spoilers maybe don't matter - can anyone settle an argument. Some people felt that Edwin's frozen reaction to what happens upstairs in the closing minutes was just his impotence and inertia ... others that he may have been a child abuser and therefore rigid with horror at what may result for him from the incident. Any views?
If you are a Mike Leigh fan I think you'll love this play, if not you probably need to have a certain type of personality. It's classic Leigh material dealing, as it does, with; class, human interaction, human frailty, loneliness, unhappiness and, indeed, Grief. This is about the minutiae of a suburban middle-class family at a turning point in social history. It's about repression, unhappiness and feeling lost in a world you never prepared yourself to deal with. Other reviewers have accused it of being clichéd and lacking narrative but then what Leigh does best is show a snapshot of the lives of some characters in a really raw and unadorned way which leaves you with unanswered questions. And Clichés exist because they are often so close to the truth. Funny yet melancholy with a shocking denouement. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth the effort!
I was very absorbed by this period drama set in SW London in 1957/8 which seemed to me to be exploring the stultifying conventions of a middle middle class family beset by loss. Of a husband, a father, a job, youth, hope... It rang true for me in that I knew a family just like that from Teddington whose son went on to suffer a life of mental illness. The play has value for me in iilluminating where I might be holding on pathetically to old habits/things carrying sentimental value of something that no longer is. I found the silent performance of the only character left on stage, the utterly impotent brother, at the climatic end to the play, very moving.
Was lucky enough to hear Mike Leigh talk about this in Cambridge.He 'wrote' a part for us the audience and it really works - we haven't stopped talking about it since. The acting is superb as is the whole ensemble, set, music - even down to the props - e.g.the flowers in the vase.See it , think about it, talk about it
Reviewer had it just right. Can't understand how anyone could give low star rating. Beautifully acted, sensitively written. A gentle warning to all that daily rituals in life can take the place of meaningful conversations.
I am at a loss to understand the reviewer's impression of this play. It was quite simply the most painful two hours I have ever spent at the National - and I have seen a lot there. It surpassed even the dire 'Fram' although at least that gave us an interval to leave in. Whilst splendidly acted, the play is horrifyingly cliched, lacks any discernible narrative, and certainly doesn't offer a single laugh. Grief is the word...
I did not enjoy this play at all. It was well acted but tedious and boring. It was all seemed a bit pointless. I usually enjoy Leighs work but this play lacks his normal clever dialogue. There were some funny chatacters who provided the odd laugh. I would have left if there were an interval.
Agree with reviewer on almost every point. And then there's the main message of the play: how different - and how much better - our lives are now when compared with the costive, unemotional, respectable Englishness of just 40 years ago. Life is dull, not the play.
SO disappointed. Rubbish. The emperor needs a script. Flat characters (great actors though, doing their best with it), dull staging, interminable. No interval - to prevent seats being empty for second half. NOT good enough for the National> Nick H - you know this wasn't good enough.