Review – Mike Leigh’s Grief – National Theater Cottlesloe

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Normally I don’t identify a play first by its author’s name (unless there’s a chance of confusion with another play), but in all of the coverage of this play it’s been “Mike Leigh’s New Play” and the title has been completely missing up until just the last few days before opening. The buzz has been more about Mike Leigh and about how he’s “written a new play for the first time in years ZOMG and is directing it too!” and I have to admit as marketing it worked for me as I am a Mike Leigh fan – well, of his movies, anyway. But then I’ve only really seen Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake, so I’m hardly a connoiseur, and I should mention I’ve also been to the quite grim play Ecstacy

And when I think about it, I think perhaps I have not thought enough about the stylistic unities of these works. All of the movies have made a great emotional impression on me, but, in retrospect, all of them seemed stunningly lacking in plot. (Okay, Vera Drake not so much, but still a bit.) Instead, they were just a bunch of seemingly random incidents captured along a forward moving timeline, all leading to … a feeling of … something … that life was slipping through my fingers. Maybe that was it. Anyway, it was a feeling I enjoyed being made to feel, so I decided Mike Leigh was a genius and have tried to make an effort to see his stuff when possible. Even the unrelieved misery of Ecstacy didn’t turn me away.

However, what is life really but a vale of sorrows? Grief, set in 1957 and 8, is about three characters who seem to live lives that give them no joy at all: widow Dorothy (Lesley Manville), her brother Edwin (Sam Kelly), and her daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) struggle side by side to get through days that seem completely meaningless. Gertrude (Marion Bailey) and Muriel (Wendy Notthingham), Dorothy’s old telephone operator friends, blow in and are cheery and upbeat much like Ewin’s friend Dr Hugh (David Horovitch); but the only support Dorothy and Edwin really have is each other. And it seems to be expressed primarily through their singing lovely old songs together, as if reliving the times when they had hopes for the future. None of these people touches each other; none of them acknowledge that any of them might be suffering (excepting when Dorothy actually bursts into tears, which earns her an offer to have a bath ran for her and a parting “Buck up”).

One of the greatest causes (and radiators) of misery is Victoria, a teenager whose shockingly hateful treatment of her mother had me cringing in my seat. I was given no clue as to what the source was of her anger and resentment, though it did certainly seem in keeping with modern teen angst, but it seemed to be incredibly vitriolic. Noticably, she seemed to be incapable of giving or receiving even the tiny, silent sympathies her mother and uncle shared, which made me think that perhaps she had a boyfriend on the sly or a drinking problem – but none of this ever comes out. She wound up as the puzzle to me at the end of the night, and, I think, the ultimate cause of this play’s failure to achieve greatness despite its unquestionable emotional impact. Leigh (and the actors if I understand his method correctly) has certainly created a household populated with realistic people, but without a bit more clue as to what is really making them tick, I can’t say he really took me anywhere. Instead, it was all a bit like – dare I say it – watching a movie about an extremely dysfunctional family. They didn’t succeed at the game of life, but I don’t need to care about why; it’s enough that I was able to share their grief. Or perhaps Leigh thought so. Me, I wanted more, much as I did when watching Ecstacy. Frankly, I can lock myself in the pit of human misery any time I feel like visiting my family, and having that experience recreated on stage doesn’t do a bit to give me more insight into the human condition. I want to learn a little more about how they tick. I can’t deny the brilliance of the performances – but theater needs more than just acting to be great. Overall, this was a good effort that I’m sure will be well received by those who like what Leigh does, but as a theater fan, I was disappointed.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thurday, September 22nd, 2011. It continues through January 28th. Although it’s currently sold out, keep coming back to the National’s website as tickets do get returned.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Mike Leigh’s Grief – National Theater Cottlesloe”

  1. PassionForTheatre Says:

    Agree with your review. I found the plot thin and wasn’t moved by the characters’ inner turmoil as the play didn’t allow the audience to understand these turmoils, let alone the reasons behind these turmoils. In the end, the play was watchable because of the superb cast which retained the audience’s interest for 2 hours.

  2. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – Mike Leigh’s Grief – National Theater Cottlesloe523 […]

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