Never one to rush to the front, Mike Leigh kept us waiting before deciding that Grief was to be the name of his new play – using his trademark improvisatory methods – for the National Theatre. Don't look for irony in the title. Despite a string of revealingly humorous moments, Grief is, by and large, what is says on the tin. In Leigh's meticulously evocative production – performed to a nicety by a crack team of regular collaborators – the quiet desperation of the characters' lives comes to suffuse the piece like the bitter, sterile smell that rises from slightly dusty net curtains.
Set in 1957 and unfolding over an unbroken two hours, the play revolves around an increasingly dysfunctional suburban household at a point when changes in the outer world (Sputnik, Algeria, the invention of the "teenager") find themselves reflected in unfamiliar turbulence on the family front. Portrayed with a heartbreakingly strained gentility by the superb Lesley Manville, Dorothy, a war widow, struggles to cope as her brother, an over-contained old cove (spot-on Sam Kelly), nears the wasteland of retirement, and her daughter (played with unnerving truculence by the Ruby Bentall) glowers mutinously on the brink of O-levels and her 16th birthday.
The treatment of cross-generational conflict veers, at times, perilously close to cliché and the tragic ending feels distastefully facile. But Manville poignantly shows you a floundering, single mother permanently worried about failing her late husband and doggedly insisting on petty rules – tense stand-offs over the sherry decanter – in a world where duffel coats and Coca-Cola are spelling the loss of her control. The play has an almost Rattiganesque understanding of the little rituals we use to shore ourselves against ruin. Unable to communicate much through words, the brother and sister touchingly express intimacy by singing their favourite songs ("Goodnight Sweeheart", "Smile" et al) over evening drinks. There are some hilarious, eruptive visits by Dorothy's old wartime telephonist pals ("Oh Dorothy, what a dear little pinny!"/"I shall run and take it off"). "Garrulous Gertie" (splendid Marion Bailey) is shrewd and genuinely means well. As a confidante, though, she's handicapped by being the kind of middle-class English woman who feels duty-bound to do both sides of every conversation.
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