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Review Round-up: Mixed Bag for Leigh's Grief

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Mike Leigh’s much-anticipated new play Grief received its world premiere in the NT Cottesloe last night (21 September 2011, previews from 14 September).

Starring Leigh’s frequent collaborator Lesley Manville as well as Marion Bailey, Sam Kelly and Wendy Nottingham (who he has worked with on feature films), the cast also includes Ruby Bentall, Dorothy Duffy and David Horovitch.

Grief, Leigh’s first new play since Two Thousand Years, which premiered at the NT Cottesloe in 2005, runs until 28 January 2012, touring to Bath Theatre Royal in October and Cambridge's Art Theatre in November.

Michael Coveney

"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 … 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 … 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 … Good Grief!"

Libby Purves
The Times

"Parents today are constantly berated for conniving in children’s fads, buying them things and trying to be their friend, not to mention going out to work rather than staying home making meatballs. Two hours with Mike Leigh’s new play about a 1957 household and you might emerge muttering that maybe our way has something to be said for it … It is a new commission, collaboratively devised, with the Leigh regulars Lesley Manville and Sam Kelly as the war widow Dorothy and her older brother Edwin. They create a delicate, sometimes beautiful but consistently depressing portrait of a household frozen in grief … The mood is lightened by the intermittent arrival of friends, proving that not everyone in 1957 was glum. David Horovitch as a rumbustious GP rouses even Edwin to mild merriment, and Dorothy’s pre-war workmates witter brightly beneath dashing hats. The caricature is kindly, though: not snidely patronizing … As to plot, well, nobody gets more truthful performances from actors than Mike Leigh, but few have less regard for storytelling. When it all ends grimly, you always knew it would."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Watching it, I found myself enveloped by a sense of oppressive gloom that became ever more unbearable as the play – two hours without an interval – progressed … Leigh is no stranger to bleakness, indeed one of his early works was called Bleak Moments, but normally his plays and films, developed with his actors, offer laughs and moving glimmers of hope, too. Not here … Leigh’s meticulous production potently captures the pain that lurked behind stiff upper lips in the England of the Fifties and the genteel habit of hiding festering problems with small talk. It almost makes one grateful for today’s let-it-all-hang-out psychobabble … Be warned: brilliant though it often is, Grief casts a potent pall of desolation that lingers long after the show itself is over."

Michael Billington

"While it doesn't disappoint in its exploration of the hermetic strangeness of English family life, it lacks the richness of texture of Leigh's finest work for stage and film … Part of Leigh's point is that outsiders are often deaf and blind to quietly escalating suburban tragedies. There is no doubt that Leigh builds up, brick by brick, a terrifying picture of the hollow rituals of family life. The seasons pass. Christmas and birthdays come and go. But even supposed celebrations are rife with tension … But, even if this isn't my favourite Leigh work, the acting is superb. Lesley Manville's Dorothy is a frightening portrait of a woman who still seems traumatised by the loss of her husband and who lives according to set rules … Whatever my doubts about the play, as always in a Leigh work the acting brands itself on the memory."

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

" Mike Leigh plays can be good fun. He has a genius for getting actors to create cartoon stereotypes and send up foolish modern manners. His latest, though, is a loveless dirge featuring a collection of two-dimensional characters locked in a bay-windowed, parquet-floored suburban hell in the late Fifties … The characters lead meaninglessly regimented lives you have to wonder why they bother getting out of bed. Every day holds renewed tedium and a regime of suffocating good manners … Indeed, the play (as so often in Leigh’s work) comes within spitting distance of full-on misanthropy. He greatly underestimates the fulfilment many ordinary people derive from leading ordinary, if at times painful, lives … In the circumstances it’s hard to say the acting is great, but it is certainly studious. There is colour from Marion Bailey as a classic Mike Leigh chatterbox, and David Horovitch as a Chekovian doctor.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Mike Leigh's first new play in six years is a typically authentic picture of intense and awkward relationships. It's a quiet, tender domestic drama set in the second half of the Fifties, slow and pensive though punctuated with moments of humour ... The scenes are short, suggesting the cramped rituals of everyday existence. Edwin compares ailments with his doctor friend Hugh, for whom everything is grounds for a terrible joke ... All of this puts me in mind of one of Philip Larkin's drearier poems. And yet, as Victoria's attitude sours, the air thickens with the threat of something more sensational ... Leigh directs with sensitivity, and the performances are superb. Manville's Dorothy is perfectly poised in her antipathy to such newfangled phenomena as fizzy drinks and duffel coats ... Grief is less hopeful than a lot of Leigh's work. There's not much that could be described as a plot, and the material is familiar. But his vision of domestic wretchedness is profound, even if in the end it isn't heartrending."


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