A Mike Leigh play entitled Grief was never going to be a barrel of laughs, but despite the poignancy of the story there is plenty of humour in this 1950s-set familial drama.
Leigh has cast his regular collaborator Lesley Manville as Dorothy, a woman tied to the memory of her late husband, who died in World War Two, restricted by her grief while the rest of society moves on. Supported – financially at least – by her nearly retired brother Edwin, Dorothy struggles through life trying to appease her wilful, unhappy daughter Victoria.
Leigh’s play is expertly rooted in its time, 1958, an era of social mores and stiff upper lips. Alison Chitty’s sepia living room and era-specific costumes capture the formality of the time – Edwin wears a suit even when relaxing at home, Dorothy’s idea of a social faux pas is to wear her kitchen pinny in the living room – while the dialogue is hilariously old-fashioned. “Shall I be mother?” says Edwin while pouring tea for his bombastic doctor friend Hugh. The level of detail is impressive; Dorothy’s habit of always keeping her handbag by her side, even when in the house, reminds me that my grandmother, from a similar era, always did the same.
Cleverly, the set and costumes also reflect Dorothy’s state of mind. When her overbearing old chums Gertrude and Muriel – played in a wonderfully irritating manner by Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham – arrive, their clothes splash vibrant colour across Dorothy’s household, contrasting against her own drab clothes and showing how Dorothy is unable to move on, stuck in the past with the memory of happier times.
Matching Manville with fine performances are Ruby Bentall as the stroppy Victoria, whose accent puts the plummy into mummy, and David Horovitch, who makes a hilarious cameo as Hugh. As Edwin, Sam Kelly captures the passivity of a man who has accepted his lot and would rather bury his head in the newspaper than face reality. In a particularly touching moment, we hear that the silver salver given to Edwin on his retirement after 45 years at the same company has his name spelt incorrectly.
However, the play is slow to build and seems to struggle for direction in the latter half of this two-hour production. I longed for some sense of hope for Dorothy, but I should have known better. When the abrupt end comes, it is sudden and shattering.