Mike Leigh’s new play, Grief, is a masterpiece in the art of not listening. Set in late 1950s, the play quietly unveils the devastating lives of a London suburban family, comprising of war widow Dorothy, her reticent brother Edwin and her troubled teenage daughter Victoria, over a 12 month period that is characterised by the seasons. Despite sharing a home and history, these characters struggle to achieve any level of intimacy with each other. They seemingly go through their own rituals (the pre dinner sherries and songs) but fail to truly express themselves or, worse still, properly listen to what is being said or not said. Each of them is wrapped up in their own turmoil, but herein lies the rub for the plot doesn’t really allow the audience to delve deep into these turmoils nor understand the reasons for these turmoils.
Dorothy, we can suppose, is still grieving for her husband; Hugh probably grieves for a life and other opportunities gone by as he nears retirement; and Victoria is caught up in teenage super angst. Dorothy’s relationship with her difficult daughter is particularly painful to watch as she remains steadfastly rigid to her rules and refuses to accept that her daughter is her own person. Still, the gap between generations is nothing new as a theme which is all the more reason why the ending of the play (which I shan’t divulge here) seems extreme.
Not all is gloomy in this play, however. Humourous interjections arrive in the form of three visitors from time to time. Hugh, a doctor friend, arrives for chinwags with Edwin and raises laughter with his ‘all’s well that ends’ and ‘as I’ve said before, I never repeat myself’. The best comedy moments belong to Dorothy’s old pals, Getrude and Muriel, two well meaning, nosy but ultimately self obsessed women. Even in these comic moments, the art of not listening is emphasized as Hugh, Getrude and Muriel ask Edwin and Dorothy plenty of questions but show no interest in their answers.
The play lacks depth but it makes up for this in its superb cast which retains the audience’s attention in a two hour period where little action takes place. Lesley Manville’s Dorothy is brittle and appears to be on the verge of a breakdown any minute; Sam Kelly’s Edwin is a study in torpidity; Ruby Bental’s Victoria is a convincing portrait of a sulky and sullen teenager who is hell-bent on causing pain to her loved ones although we are given no inkling as to why she behaves the way she does. The excellent comic portrayals of Marion Bailey’s Getrude and Wendy Nottingham’s Muriel accentuate Dorothy’s unspoken desperation and loneliness.
Grief is on at the National Theatre until 28 January 2012. Performance time is 2 hours with no intervals. At the time of writing, tickets are sold out for September and October. Box office (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or 020 7452 3000).