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Theatre review: Grief 
28th-Sep-2011 10:58 pm
When the title of Mike Leigh's new play was announced, days before the first performance, as Grief, the theatrical community at large made the assumption that it might, just maybe, not be the happiest show on earth. Though as Ian pointed out, since Ecstasy was somewhat less cheerful than the title suggested, Grief could well turn out to be a tap-dancing musical extravaganza. I can't swear I wasn't, just for the odd moment during the two-hour running time, slightly distracted by the thought of Lesley Manville breaking into a soft-shoe shuffle. You may not be entirely surprised to discover this doesn't happen, but there is a musical element as the two central characters occasionally break into sad, nostalgic renditions of wartime hits.

It's autumn 1957 and Dorothy (Manville,) who was widowed in the war, now lives with her soon-to-be-retired older brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and her terrifying teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall.) Maintaining a stiff upper lip in front of friends her world quietly falls apart over the next year. Manville and Bentall are very good, and Kelly is quietly devastating as a man who's worked in the same office for 45 years without, it seems, anybody noticing, and his own grief is for his wasted life. In fact as the play goes on the quietly ineffectual Edwin seems more and more to be the real central figure of the story. I found him very moving but the fact that Sam Kelly looks a lot like my uncle could be clouding my judgement on this. While the central trio are a study in despair, the play does have a surprising amount of funny moments as the supporting cast - aware that something's wrong but unable to get past the reserve and be able to help - are a much livelier bunch. Dorothy Duffy is a tactless Irish cleaning lady, David Horovitch a doctor very amused by his own jokes, and as two of Dorothy's friends, Marion Bailey steamrollers over Wendy Nottingham's attempts at joining in the conversation. It's not Leigh's best work and it's rather oblique but it's still an intense and impressively acted two hours. I still think they could have thrown in some jazz hands though.

Grief by Mike Leigh is in repertory until the 28th of January at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.
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