Grief, Cottesloe, NT review, National Theatre, November 2011

This powerful new play by Mike Leigh leaves a haunting sense of despair after the fine cast has brought to life characters who just don’t get it.

Lesley Manville, Ruby Bentall and Sam Kelly

It starts in 1957 when the Russians put up Sputnik, and the doctor’s son is working for Ferranti, designing computers, whatever they are. Exciting times, yet Lesley Manville’s Dorothy and her brother, Sam Kelly’s Edwin are stuck in the past. They share a house — Dorothy having lost her husband during the war — and in quiet moments they occasionally sing old songs in unison. The nostalgia is claustrophobic, and confusing to Dorothy’s daughter, Victoria.

The Doctor with Edwin

She is fifteen going on sixteen, and needs emotional support that her mother fails to provide, let alone her uncle or her godparents Gertrude and Muriel, friends of Dorothy from her days as a rather classy telephonist. These elegant, gregarious ladies, well portrayed by Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham, really haven’t a clue. ‘Garrulous Gertie’ answers her own kindly questions with no need for any response, and both are about as far from understanding Ruby Bentall’s teenage Victoria as the earth is from the moon.

Marion Bailey, Lesley Manville and Wendy Nottingham

Poor Dorothy. She’s elegant too, whisking off her apron when guests arrive, and trying to give her awkward daughter firm boundaries that aren’t really part of her own nature. Dorothy Duffy’s rude cleaning lady treats her with contempt, knowing full well her mistress can’t set the agenda. Yet Dorothy can and does stop her daughter having a tiny tipple of sherry before her sixteenth birthday, even on Christmas day, three weeks before the major event. You can say, no … no … no … and then yes, at which point the other person’s annoyance causes them to refuse. And even when it’s about to happen, on Edwin’s return from his final day at work after forty five years of steady slog, Dorothy can’t resist controlling the situation by telling her daughter to sip it slowly. What does she think she’d do — knock it back like a Russian sailor, or copy the subdued ways of her elders? And why does she need to reveal to Edwin what his Christmas present is just as he’s about to open it? Her emotional intelligence is poor, and that’s true of everyone here, even David Horovitch as the doctor friend with his witty one-liners, “He who laughs last thinks slowest”. No-one is ahead of the curve, not even the doctor. This is not Chekhov. It’s Mike Leigh’s beautifully observed portrait of ordinary folk unaware of their own failings, helped by superb acting and a well-balanced cast directed by the author.

Dorothy and Victoria in a rare lighter moment

“All’s well that ends” says the bouncy doctor, not once or twice but every time he appears …until his final appearance at the house when it really is the end.

Performances continue until January 28 — for details click here.

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