Mike Leigh’s new play is about the start of the Space Age – and the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 – as viewed, or rather ignored, as it happens in a distant suburban terraced house in west London.
The visiting doctor’s son at Manchester University is researching into things called computers. A neighbour’s son is working as a waiter and has no girlfriends. We hear of an air stewardess whose celebrity clients are Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, the Eurovision Song Contest duo. James Dean’s been and gone.
But Lesley Manville’s widowed Dorothy (husband “lost” in the War) is frozen in grief, suspended in a malignant spiritual inertia, trapped in a house she shares with her elder brother Edwin and her brutishly sullen teenaged daughter Victoria.
Sam Kelly’s pipe-smoking Edwin is about to retire after 45 years with an insurance firm. He has no plans, and no leisure pursuits or trousers. Ruby Bentall’s squared-jawed Victoria is supposed to be studying for her O-levels but is kicking against her confinement. She wants posters on the bedroom wall, sherry with the adults, a duffel coat (which, she angrily points out, has toggles, not buttons).
The stage is heavy, aching almost, with dullness, the changing time of day unerringly and beautifully indicated in Paul Pyant’s lighting. The period detail is exact in Alison Chitty’s design, door handles much higher than today. Short scenes – punctuated by Gary Yershon’s plangent string music — are compiled like building blocks, some of haiku density.
This is Mike Leigh’s most distilled and concentrated work, on stage or screen: two hours of poetic tension broken by David Horovitch’s bluff, humorously banal doctor, Victoria slamming her bedroom door, Dorothy rushing out to take off her “pinny,” and Dorothy’s two former telephonist friends – Marion Bailey’s snobbish, garrulous Gertrude and Wendy Nottingham’s prim, increasingly acid Muriel – sweeping in with chatter of charity clothes sales and old times.
The confidence, and assurance, of the play is breath-taking. Brother and sister sing parlour songs in descant over the sherry; but that routine, too, will be broken. As so often in Leigh, and in Greek tragedy, there is a climactic catastrophe. There have been clues and red herrings: signs of illness; missing money for the new cleaner from Donegal (a clenched cameo from Dorothy Duffy); Dorothy’s increasing distraction; pressure to succeed.
As in Leigh’s last great movie, Another Year, time passes through seasonal shadows. In that film, Lesley Manville couldn’t stop talking. Here, she can hardly start. Her face is a mask of infinite sadness and gathering fear, complemented by Kelly’s almost painful precision and suppressed emotion – here is a universe of sighs and little “oh’s” as the big bad world keeps turning. Good Grief!