Grief

Mike Leigh
RNT Cottesloe Theatre

Grief production photo

Mike Leigh creates work like nobody else. Grief is to all intents and purposes a tragedy in which nothing happens but, nevertheless, it grips for every minute of its two hours.

The suspense started early, as the play only gained a name a few days before opening. Of its subject matter nothing was known until Alison Chitty's 1950s living room greeted visitors with its multiple shades of beige.

We all know that the past is another country but in this pitch perfect evocation of comfortable suburbia near Twickenham in 1958, it feels more like a different planet. In purely technological terms, there is no TV, wireless or even telephone in an affluent family living room that is well-served with books (remember those). Computers are no more than new-fangled rumours.

The setting is the home shared by war widow Dorothy, her elder brother Edwin and daughter Victoria.

Dorothy has no job, a brisk Irish cleaner and yet, as ladies of leisure did in the fifties, somehow fills her days. The highlights are shopping exp3editions to the West End and visits by two old friends from the single days when they worked together in a telephone exchange.

Garrulous Gertie lives up to her proudly brandished nickname in a lovely cameo from Marion Bailey, effortlessly keeping a conversation going single-handed for hours. This leaves little for her silent friends to do but listen.

Her male equivalent is David Horovich's Hugh, a doctor friend of Edwin's who exudes bonhomie and bad jokes.

To say that nothing consequential happens sounds damning but when Leigh is writing/directing, that is no impediment to a great night out.

The characters each evoke their period and could have stepped straight out of a lost play or film script by Terence Rattigan or, for that matter, a well-heeled family's living room.

Dorothy may do nothing perceptible but she cares deeply, which means tears are never far away. She still desperately misses her late husband, waits happily on Edwin and worries about Victoria.

Edwin played by Sam Kelly is an emollient nonentity. As the play opens, he is contemplating departure from his job with an insurance company. On retirement after 45 years, the commemorative salver has his name misspelt and the quiet man's boss reduces the service by five years. Ineffectual Edwin just smiles and carries on reading books and steering clear of life.

Victoria is another matter. Ruby Bentall makes the sulky, insolent 15 year old into a cold, staring automaton who could have escaped from a sci-fi movie in which a town's children are possessed by aliens.

She becomes increasingly troubled and troublesome following a battle between mother and daughter over thimbles of sherry which led to an irretrievable breakdown in relations, frustrating poor generous Mum and probably many members of the audience who will secretly heave a sigh of relief that they have escaped such a parental fate.

The evening's rich, subtle humour largely comes at the expense of the middle-aged half a century ago, whose value systems seem unintelligible but often hilarious today.

In a play, constructed using the shortest of scenes, tension builds surely towards a dénouement that seems likely to be as inconsequential in the overall scheme of things as everything that has gone before.

Nevertheless, Grief reveals far more about the minutiae of ordinary people than thousands of episodes of soap operas, which claim to do the same.

While Sam Kelly and Ruby Bentall cannot be faulted in their portrayals, Lesley Manville is magnificent as Dorothy. The Leigh favourite impeccably conveys the seeping unhappiness of a woman who seemingly has all that one could ask for but slowly finds life becoming too much and heads inexorably towards a quiet and suitably polite nervous breakdown. Her final line, though delivered offstage, will live in the memory for some considerable time to come.

"Grief" plays until 28 January, 2012

Reviewer: Philip Fisher