There is, undeniably, a connection between Mike Leigh’s character-driven devising process and the superb performances which his actors go on to deliver; from Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party to David Thewlis in Naked, there is a sense that development of the roles from within, rather than from a script, has contributed to the brilliant realism of the final product.
Unfortunately in the case of Grief, impeccable acting seems to come at the price of a rather thin and ultimately predictable plot. It’s 1958, and war widow Dorothy and her bachelor brother Edwin share a comfortable, if sedate, life that is steadily ruptured by the growing rift between Dorothy and her withdrawn, deeply unhappy daughter, Victoria. A raft of supporting players who visit the not-so-happy family’s living room serve to further highlight the household’s estrangement from life, as much as from each other. It seems to be no coincidence that it is as Dorothy is dragged to afternoon tea by her friends that the simmering pot of familial tensions finally reaches boiling point, keeping her once more in the self-imposed isolation of her own stifling home.
Perhaps Leigh’s intention in reiterating the hollow rituals of the everyday – from Edwin’s post-work pipe and paper through to Victoria’s post-argument door slamming – is to induce a semi-hypnotic state where each meaningless piece of action slowly slots into its inexorable place and contributes to an equally inevitable ending. Perhaps. Many, however, will understandably find the piece slow and lacking in volition, with frustratingly little guesswork required to foresee the general direction of the story. Purists will respond that Leigh chronicles the unexamined life, and that histrionic plot development isn’t part of his remit – and so the debate continues.
And yet, what seems indisputable here is that – as is to be expected with any Mike Leigh work – the performances are uniformly captivating. Ruby Bentall imbues Victoria with a sardonic wit which balances well against the genuine angst of her character, and David Horovitch is scene-stealing as a blindly insensitive chum of Edwin’s, obsessively boasting about his son whilst reassuring his soon-to-be-retired friend with mordant platitudes such as “all’s well that ends!”. But it is Lesley Manville’s star which shines brightest, with her hauntingly poignant portrait of a woman constricted by sensibility and social code. She conveys layers of mourning, longing and loneliness less through dialogue than through exquisitely observed facial expressions which are more than enough to fill any silences; these, and her bittersweet duets with her brother – the also brilliant Sam Kelly – feel like moments of truly classic Leigh.
If the purpose of a review is to advise the reader whether or not to go and see the performance in question, then Grief poses a dilemma. The play itself is by no means revelatory, and one suspects that had it been scripted rather than devised then the National may have been rather more reticent about staging it. And yet, in the 36 hours since I left the theatre, whilst my judgement of the plot remains resolute, the feel of the piece, created through Alison Chitty’s detailed single set and Paul Pyant’s deceptively atmospheric lighting as much as by the first-class acting, has lingered with me and may well do the same with you.
Grief plays the Cambridge Arts Theatre from 1 – 5 November, before returning to the National Theatre’s Cottesloe until 28 January.