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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Cottesloe)


  Ruby Bentall and Wendy Nottingham/ Ph: John Haynes

Quiet desperation sits at the heart of Mike Leigh’s latest play, a study of stiff upper lips losing their starch in the late 50s amid London’s stultifying southwestern suburbs. It’s a cumulative piece that builds in tiny increments to a devastating conclusion, emblematic of Leigh’s improvisatory working methods.
But for all his emphasis on ensemble playing, Leigh is also a maker and a nourisher of stars. Grief features an understatedly magnificent central performance from his longtime collaborator Lesley Manville as unraveling war widow Dorothy, and a no-less impressive turn from Ruby Bentall as her sullen daughter Victoria.
Dorothy can’t keep up – with money, with her show-off friends, with the little rituals of tea and cucumber sandwiches and pre-dinner sherry. She keeps forgetting to take off her kitchen apron, not realising the world barely cares. Victoria can’t keep up either, with her peers or her schoolwork. The world is changing, with satellites and computers looming intimidatingly large, and youth culture with its rock music and duffel coats hammering on the doors of the old decorum.
There are some slightly heavy-handed attempts to nail the pivotal nature of the times, with namechecks for Bill Haley and James Dean. But the idea of an era passing, at least for some, is expressed more eloquently in the character of Dorothy’s live-in brother Edwin (Sam Kelly), a bookishly unexamined bachelor who is about to retire after 45 years with the same insurance company. The old songs he and Dorothy occasionally sing are achingly wistful.
The play proceeds in short scenes on a single, genteelly unassuming living-room set by Alison Chitty, the mood of anxiety slowly thickening. There’s none of that heightened air to the playing that often makes me ambivalent about Leigh’s work. David Horovitch’s banally prattling doctor, Dorothy’s two briskly intimidating friends and her mulish cleaner are beautifully observed and have their intricate parts to play. The looming disaster is flagged up with hints and red herrings, but when it comes it has a potency that literally stirred the hair on my scalp.


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