The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre Winter 2011-2012
Mike Leigh's new play didn't have a title until a couple of days before its first performance at the National Theatre, and those who know Leigh's way of working won't be too surprised.
The writer-director creates his plays and films by assembling a group of trusted actors, giving them basic character descriptions, and then leading them in weeks of improvisations until what they come up with inspires a script, which they then stick to.
At its best this method creates intense realism, as the actors know their characters inside and out, and at its worst (which Grief is not) it can be a bit of a mess, the various parts never quite gelling.
Grief lies somewhere in the middle. It says what it wants to say, frequently very movingly, but it spreads its small observation a bit too thin, while some peripheral bits and pieces never find their place.
The title suggests death, and there is one death long before the opening of the play and another (no major spoiler alert here) at its end. But the real cause of mourning is the end of an era and a generation's suspicion that nothing it was taught will be of much help in the future.
Set in 1957-1958, Grief focusses on a war widow who lives in genteel middle-class-ness with her older brother and her stroppy teenage daughter. All the conventions and values of the pre-war generation are kept going in this household – tidying up the house before the cleaning lady comes, a single sherry coinciding with the almost ceremonial closing of the window drapes, the arbitrary rule of no aprons in the parlour – and every time they are repeated they are a little emptier, a little less effective in keeping out the bad thoughts and whatever demons lurk under the beds.
Leigh veteran Lesley Manville gives one of the all-time great Mike Leigh performances as the woman who just vaguely senses that all her coping mechanisms are failing, without the capacity to imagine any variations or alternatives.
Much of what Manville does in the course of the play repeats what she's done before, but each time with just the slightest degree less conviction and the slightest increase of panic in her eyes.
As the brother, Sam Kelly follows a parallel path, sometimes a step behind his sister, sometimes a bit ahead, toward the realisation of how totally irrelevant his life has been.
Ruby Bentall makes the daughter a typically moody adolescent but helps us see what a totally unknowable animal she must be to her mother, and how isolated that must make her feel.
There are a few minor characters who didn't turn out as interesting or relevant as Leigh probably hoped they would when the creative process began, and at two hours without interval, the play is overlong for its small message, suggesting that there is probably a superb one-hour TV drama inside it somewhere.
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Review - Grief - National Theatre 2011