The very title of Mike Leigh’s 2011 play suggests that it isn’t going to be a bundle of laughs, but ImpAct’s reputation for successfully tackling gritty subject matter more than convinced me that this was a production I shouldn’t miss. How did I feel by the end of the evening? Well, I’m awfully glad there was an interval – in the original at the National Theatre it was played straight through – or I might just have nodded off.
I do stress that this was absolutely nothing to do with the performances or Patricia Richardson’s direction, all of which, as I anticipated, were first-class. No, the fault lay in the interminable number of very short scenes during which, in typical Leigh mode, nothing much happened except that people spoke but nobody listened or appeared to notice the non-verbal signals indicating that things were not at all right. And when the play reached its inevitable conclusion I felt cheated somehow, as if some important final scene had been left out. There were so many unanswered questions that cried out for explanations, but in Mr Leigh’s script none were forthcoming.
The action takes place in the late 1950s in the drawing room of widowed Dorothy’s London house, which she shares with her almost retired older brother, Edwin, and her 15-year-old daughter, Victoria. The set was superb and looked extremely realistic, spoiled slightly on opening night by a curtain accidentally pushed out of place by the presence of a Christmas tree and subsequently never straightened during what was supposedly a nine-month period despite more than one character actually walking to the window and looking out. A small thing, I know, but oh so noticeable to the audience.
ImpAct has a real find in experienced actress and local newcomer, Christine Derrington, who plays Dorothy. Her totally natural characterisation made it immediately obvious that life has been a struggle since the wartime loss of her husband, and it was easy to warm to her and empathise with her feelings. Peter Watson (Edwin) is also superb and utterly believable as a rather dull, insignificant bachelor, while Alicia Shore (Victoria) is every inch the stroppy, troubled teenager who hates everybody. I suspect it is more than a year or two since she was 15 in real life, so how lucky to be able to get away with looking that young!
Larger-than-life friends pop into this rather unhappy household every now and then to bring a sense of a more normal outside world: Edwin’s friend, Hugh, a local doctor, played in ebullient style by the ever-excellent Matthew Ellison, and sisters Muriel (Beverley Beck) and Gertrude (Lotte Fletcher-Jonk), both extremely well played and with the latter very much putting me in mind of the irritating Beverly in another of Leigh’s plays, Abigail’s Party. Finally there is Dorothy’s Irish cleaner, Maureen, finely characterised by Marie Bushell.
Costumes were excellent and sound effects interesting – some, like the noise of Victoria stomping upstairs and slamming her door, conjured up just the right picture. In contrast, every time the kettle whistled (a lot of tea was drunk in this production) I erroneously thought I was hearing a police car racing up Christchurch High Street.
On balance, although I don’t really feel that Grief is a particularly well-constructed play, this touring production is well worth seeing for the superb acting, so please try to catch one of the remaining performances: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne (11 October); the Hub, Verwood (14 October); the Plaza Theatre, Romsey (17 October).