Theatre Review: Grief at the National Theatre

Mike Leigh lives up to his reputation for domestic dramas with a tender portrait of family life

Grief was only given its very fitting title last week, before which it was simply “A New Play by Mike Leigh.” It is a testament to the power of the director’s name that the run is already sold out.

It is a slow and tender portrait of a small family’s quotidian existence, each character’s private anguish painfully observed.

Dorothy, a nervous Second World War widow, is played with beautiful tension by Lesley Manville. Her retired brother Edwin hangs about like a melancholy fog, listlessly killing the days while his niece Victoria rampages around the house in adolescent rage.

Even Victoria, ostensibly the least repressed of all (she smokes, shouts at mummy and bunks off school) is bound by 1950s social decorum and the stiff upper lip. Her unvoiced depression drags the play to its awful climax.


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The monotony is broken up by visits from friends, most notably Hugh, whose exuberant jokes are delivered with hilarious bluster by David Horovitch. But despite abundant laughs a gloomy mundanity pervades - scarcely helped by lengthy blackouts during the many scene changes.

One particularly clever theatrical device is the focus on just one set - the living room. Thus much of the action happens in areas of the house we are not privy to. Like neighbours listening in on a row, we hear characters arguing offstage in their bedrooms, and this is especially harrowing when the end scene happens out of view.

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But apart from this final pay-off, Leigh’s play would have worked better on the silver screen.

* Grief is showing at the National Theatre, in Southbank, SE1, until Saturday, January 28.

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