Hearts break very quietly in a 1950s suburban living-room in Grief, Mike Leigh’s exquisite new play which is currently in previews at the National Theatre and follows this year’s well-received revival of his 1979 play Ecstasy at Hampstead and in the West End. (Despite the complementary one-word titles, there are no direct connections between these two dramas, as had been speculated in some quarters.) Appearing in Terence Rattigan’s centenary year, this new play marks Leigh out - at once surprisingly and not surprisingly at all - as an heir to Rattigan in many ways: an acute anatomist of English reserve, of petty cruelties, of failures in communication and love. Having been dissatisfied with Leigh’s last film, Another Year (2010), on a number of counts, I was delighted to find myself completely absorbed by Grief, a play which ranks, I think, as one of the director’s finest works to date, and certainly one of his most tender, poignant and humane.
The setting is the middle-class household of Dorothy (Lesley Manville), a war widow who resides with her bachelor brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) in a Greater London suburb. The year is 1957, in an England in which signs of social change are just beginning to stir. Changes are occurring within the family, too: Edwin is about to retire and Victoria is preparing for her O’Levels. Though clearly plagued by depression and still affected by her husband’s death, Dorothy is a kind and outwardly cheerful woman, who plays the gracious hostess as she receives visits from her old friends Gertrude (Marion Bailey) and Muriel (Wendy Nottingham). But as the New Year approaches the situation in the household darkens considerably, as mother and daughter come into conflict and the extent of Victoria’s frustration and resentment is revealed.
Fractious parent/teen relationships have been a staple of Leigh’s output from Life is Sweet (1990) to All or Nothing (2002), and they come to form the focus of Grief, a play deeply concerned with generational clashes and the reluctance of parents to accept changes in their children. And Leigh’s delicate and atmospheric production, beautifully lit by Paul Pyant and meticulously designed by Alison Chitty, draws us gently but inexorably into intense intimacy with the characters, pulling our sympathies every which way.
The principal problem with Another Year, for me, was that it resorted to Leigh’s bad habit of setting up over-obvious contrasts between the protagonists and encouraging the audience to pass judgement on them. Grief avoids such traps. Holding more than one perspective in balance, the play simply presents behaviour, and gives us the space to draw our own conclusions. Dorothy’s firm belief in “the rules” and her refusal to yield to her daughter on certain picky points of social propriety are frustrating, yet Manville’s empathetic performance succeeds in showing that the character is motivated by deep concern and love for her child. At times, the play’s portrait of parent/teen communication break-down threatens to teeter on the brink of cliché. But the perceptiveness and emotional exactitude of Leigh and his actors is such that Victoria and Dorothy’s conflicts stir many small shocks of recognition. Registering distress with the slightest flinch, the brilliance of Manville’s subtle, captivating performance is that it keeps us attuned to Dorothy’s feelings all the time: we have the sense of watching her thinking, in close-up, throughout. And she’s well-matched by the excellent Bentall, who unpicks Victoria’s terseness to reveal a truly disturbing sense of alienation and tendency towards self-sabotage: her final (wordless) scene may haunt you for days to come.
The production’s rhythm is extremely satisfying: the scenes flow elegantly, each carrying its precise emotional weight, and revealing some gem of perception or resonant detail, while generating a strong cumulative tension across the interval-less two hour running time. (And Leigh isn’t afraid of moments of silence and stillness on stage, either.) As in Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Vera Drake (2004) the director again proves himself a master at writing believable period dialogue too: the interactions here feel totally authentic, emerging out of the social context in a way that never seems forced or contrived. When Dorothy, Gertrude and Muriel reminisce about their work as telephonists, or when Edwin and Dorothy talk about their parents, these moments have a genuine weight. (The sequences benefit from the performers’ shared professional history as “Leigh regulars,” too.) And the scenes in which Manville and Kelly sing together - with the lyrics of songs like “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Smile,” and “Apple Blossom Time” expressing the deep feelings that the characters aren’t otherwise able to articulate - are simply lovely; they suggest such a close, intuitive brother/sister bond that the progressive deterioration of Dorothy and Edwin’s relationship is truly upsetting to witness. Again, the challenge of human contact is Leigh’s primary concern throughout. A scene in which Bailey’s garrulous Gertrude finds Dorothy in distress and the two women almost - but don’t quite - win their way through to honest communication is especially moving.
There’s also lovely work from Dorothy Duffy as Dorothy’s brash, no-nonsense new cleaner, Maureen, and, in particular, from David Horovitch as Hugh, the jovial Doctor friend of Edwin’s who drops by to boast about his son’s achievements and giggle over his own witticisms.
Those who prefer the more savage and satirical side to Leigh may be disappointed in Grief, a play which, while rich in humorous moments, avoids the snide tone that can crop up in his work. (The director certainly seems to be mellowing on class issues: following the glowing endorsement given to those smug bourgeois Tom and Gerri in Another Year, the middle-class matrons here are subjected to only the most affectionate mockery.) As in other Leigh texts, there’s also a certain inevitability to the trajectory of the piece: you may find yourself wishing for a less predictable ending. But that doesn’t stop the conclusion from packing a terrific emotional punch. Perfectly pitched and powerfully affecting, this great production is one of the strongest that the National Theatre has offered us in a patchy year. Good Grief indeed.
The production runs for two hours without interval and is booking until 28th January. Many performances are already sold-out but further information is available at the NT website.