Mike Leigh’s latest play for the National Theatre, visiting Cambridge as part of a short tour, is a provoking affair. The – often very short – scenes are punctuated by Gary Yershon’s incidental music and some deliberately visible stage management. It makes for a strange sort of alienation effect, mirroring the way all the characters never quite end up on the same wavelength as any one of the others for more than a brief, almost brushed-aside moment.
It’s superbly acted, especially by Ruby Bentall as Victoria, the troubled teenage daughter of Lesley Manville (war widow Dorothy) and Dorothy’s brother Edwin (Sam Kelly). All three give subtle performances as each revolves in his or her partly home-created cage of selfishness. You can visualise the abyss into which Bentall’s character is heading
as the dutiful daughter twists into the confrontational schoolgirl.
Kelly’s portrait of a man facing retirement from office drudgery for whom a book has more reality than people is beautifully nuanced. Of course his presentation salver has his name mis-spelt and his boss’ speech will get the yeas of his service wrong. It’s inevitable. David Horovitch's Hugh exudes the sort of bedside manners guaranteed to truncate any doctor-patient relationship.
Manville gives us a woman who has lost more than just her “better half” in all senses of the phrase. Her powers of reasoning as well as her emotions are askew, as shown in her relationship with her cleaner Maureen (Dorothy Duffy) as well as with the daughter whose deepening unhappiness she seems incapable of even beginning to comprehend and the contrasting over-relaxed but shared-experience moments with her sibling.
No-one does ladies who lunch (and talk non-stop) better than Leigh. Here he offers us Muriel and Gertrude, so socially secure with their high-achieving husbands and sons and oh-so-very-slightly using Dorothy and their mutual god-daughter Victoria as mirrors for their own preening. Wendy Nottingham and Marion Bailey flounce them before us in all their Osbert Lancaster cartoonist perfection.