“I don’t want some lovely pink lemonade, I want a sherry”
Mike Leigh’s new play for the National Theatre was finally entitled Grief after going under ‘A New Play’ for what felt like the longest time and sees him reunited with frequent collaborator Lesley Manville. I was quite looking forward to it as my first ‘new’ Leigh stage experience, the revival of Ecstasy having whetted my appetite quite considerably. Manville plays Dorothy, widowed in the war and frozen in the past, who lives with her stroppy teenage daughter Victoria and also her older brother Edwin, a complete creature of habit who is coming to the end of 45 years working at the same insurance firm. A set of visitors offer a little relief to this suffocating routine in Alison Chitty’s drab suburban living room set, Edwin’s brusque doctor friend and Dorothy’s old colleagues who love a good natter but it is the cleaner who gets more of a view into the quietly toxic atmosphere of this household which gradually gets worse.
It is acted well, extremely well in most places. Marion Bailey and David Horovitch are striking in the vividness of their characterisations as two of the visitors; Ruby Bentall’s sullen teenager captures the tragedy of wasted potential, stymied by her surroundings and unable to break free; Sam Kelly’s retiree is a powerfully effective study in near-paralysis and Lesley Manville is utterly superb as a woman who seems unable to move on from the past, yet not even really gaining succour from singing old songs with her brother any more.
But even with acting of this calibre and an intriguing set-up of characters, the play never really kicks into gear. Grief plays out over multiple short scenes, which is a fantastic way in which to slowly reveal character and it is excellently done here, but it engenders a sense of overfamiliarity (something exacerbated by the sense that Leigh is retreading old ground here) and it restricts the opportunity for a plot to emerge, never mind develop. By the time it does, it is telegraphed rather too obviously and so the move to the climax ending up feeling like something of a repetitive grind with no danger of me being emotionally engaged.
There’s a wry sense of humour that occasionally flashes through the desolate despair of this family mainly through the visitors, but ultimately not enough of it comes from themselves, the family dynamic just felt too unremittingly bleak to actually make me care for these people. As a study in characterisation and in acting, Grief really is superb, sadly it just doesn’t come across as that interesting a story.