Review: Grief, National Theatre

Lives lost and lives wasted are at the heart of Mike Leigh’s aptly-named new play at the National Theatre. The title for the revered practitioner’s latest work was revealed less than two weeks before the show opened and the subject matter kept tightly under wraps, but despite the dearth of details, theatregoers might safely assume that it was hardly going to be a cheery affair. This plodding, contemplative slow-burner of increasingly unsettling emotional repression certainly lives up to the promise of its grim title.

We are in the familiarly buttoned-up wasteland of 1950s suburbia, in the pristine living room of a house somewhere in the London commuter belt. This is the home of Dorothy (Lesley Manville), a war widow barely hiding an exhausting sadness beneath her brittle smile, who lives with her brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and irritable, troubled teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall). The world of the play moves from 1957 to 58 over the length of its uninterrupted two hours, but little changes in this stifling family home, a place where decay is buried under routine and outdated, inflexible ‘rules’.

Leigh is famed for getting the best out of his actors and Grief undoubtedly fits the bill on this score. The ever-excellent Manville’s quietly tortured portrait of bereavement is the devastating core of this play, a delicately wrought image of despair in the stiff-upper-lip generation. Stranded in the past and powerless to alter her present, Dorothy is as drained of colour and frozen in time as the treasured photograph of her late husband that perpetually adorns her lifeless living room.

Kelly’s poignantly disappointed Edwin is similarly inactive, moving from thankless employment to sedentary retirement and settling disturbingly into pipe-smoking isolation, while Bentall’s petulant portrayal of teenage angst slowly tips over into something far more sinister. This is a production in which performances are necessarily unshowy, with tightly contained emotions only escaping in beautifully subtle gestures and the unspoken laying in a thick blanket over empty etiquette and small-talk.

Grief is an emotional marathon of a play, made up of several short, sharp sprints along the way. Scenes are often swift and fleeting in a sometimes fragmented structure that recalls film, a medium that we are more used to seeing Leigh work in these days. The intention behind this, presumably, is to emphasise the episodic yet unchanging passing of empty days in Dorothy’s life, but this technique begins to grate and the frequent, often messy set changes are distracting. As ever more bleak scenes succeed one another, this can become difficult and at times tedious viewing; plot is not high in Leigh’s list of priorities.

The monotony, however, is eased by a few well-timed laughs, provided courtesy of some dazzling cameo turns. David Horovitch is on hilarious form as Edwin’s wise-cracking, pun-happy mate Hugh, while Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham are delightfully grotesque as Gertrude and Muriel, Dorothy’s oppressively cheerful and chatty gal pals. The contrast of the colourful and the dull is effective if a little pointed, while a stand-out scene between an inconsolable Dorothy and an awkward Gertrude highlights the lack of honesty between friends who are straitjacketed by decorum.

Leigh’s finale, magnificently executed though it might be, does not come as a great surprise. There is clearly something unpleasant silently festering away throughout in this poisonously stagnant environment and its revelation leaves a sense of dissatisfaction rather than shock in its wake. Yet, for all that it fails to really go anywhere, this vision of loneliness and alienation has the power to disturb long after the curtain has fallen.

Image: Charlotte MacMillan

Grief runs at the Cottesloe space in the National Theatre until 28 January 2011.

3 Responses to “Review: Grief, National Theatre”
  1. The acting was superb but, while I was expecting a sad ending, I didn’t expect this particular ending which to me seemed a little OTT, which surprised me. Perhaps it seemed OTT because we didn’t really understand why sulky Victoria was behaving the way she does. But in the current season, this is the best play on offer at the National.

  2. Agreed, the acting is excellent, as always seems to be the case with Leigh. But you make a really good point about the lack of explanation for Victoria’s behaviour, I was hoping to find out more about her character which we never do. Perhaps that is what’s meant to make it all the more disturbing, but I did leave feeling a little unsatisfied on that score.

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  1. […] must admit slight disappointment at Mike Leigh’s much-hyped Grief, but it was worth seeing for Manville’s acting masterclass if nothing else. Nuanced and […]

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