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> > > Review: Mike Leigh's play 'Grief'

25 January 2012

photo of two actresses wearing 1950s clothes

Lesley Manville (left) as the widowed Dorothy with Marion Baley as Gertrude Photo: Alastair Muir

Charlie Swinbourne reviews Mike Leigh's play 'Grief' - in production at the The National's Cottesloe Theatre until 28 January.

Have you ever encountered that strange feeling when a director you really admire creates a play with a great cast, a great theme, with everything in place for a first-rate play, yet you feel it somehow fell short? That's how I feel about Mike Leigh's latest play, Grief.

All the director's usual hallmarks are present and correct. A domestic setting, naturalistic performances, dialogue that readily reveals extensive back stories. We are in the 1950s, in a living room in a suburban house where widower Dorothy (a fantastic performance by Lesley Manville), her brother Edwin and her teenage daughter Victoria live. Scenes and time are separated by changes in the light - cross fading that takes us from night to day, from autumn to winter.

The grief the title refers to is for Dorothy's husband, who died in the war – before his daughter Victoria knew him. His death has clearly cast a shadow over Dorothy, although, this being the 50s, she doesn't often talk about it. Nor is she often allowed to, by her overbearing friends who barely let her get a word in.

Leigh has always focused on the drama of the everyday. Here, we're repeatedly subjected to the humiliations of a mother as Dorothy is tortured by teenage Victoria's increasingly brutal rudeness to her. Scene by scene, we watch the relationship between them deteriorate, coming to realise that Dorothy is not only a victim of her daughter's behaviour, but partly culpable for it.

The play therefore, is about the effect of what was not said in British society in the post-war years. It's about how destructive all that keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip was. Were those years, often romanticised, any better than the present day. Or did they seem better because - as myth would have it - no-one ever spoke about anything that troubled them?

For all that those elements are in place, and Grief makes its point, it was hard not to think about the economy of Leigh's film work and wonder whether a trimmed-down running time would have made for a better final product. I recognise there are advantages to (and many fans of) the slow-burn effect we see here; the cumulative impact of of small actions over a long period of time. But a greater level of economy would have made for a better play.

My biggest problem was with the end. Something occurs just before the actors take their bows that pushed the point more strongly than I felt could be justified by what had gone before. After all that slow-burn, the play would have been far stronger for not making a sensational choice.