Reviews West End & Central Published 23 September 2011


National Theatre ⋄ 14th September 2011 - 28th January 2012

A new play by Mike Leigh.

Lois Jeary

Devastatingly observed. Photo: Alistair Muir

It was, until very recently at least, a play which didn’t even need a title: the one name associated with it – Mike Leigh – was apparently a sufficient  draw, and so it proved. This ‘new play by Mike Leigh’ has become Grief, and alongside a team assembled and exercised with his defining method of development through improvisation, he has produced a work of devastatingly observed emotion in an ultimately chilling, if at times laborious, play.

Grief presents us with a household of three in the late 1950s – war widowed Dorothy, played with a deeply feeling distraction by Lesley Manville; her elder brother Edwin, who seems to be waiting for death to come knocking as he puffs on his pipe; and Dorothy’s morose teenage daughter Victoria. Numbed by a grief she is unable to conquer, Dorothy fights a daily battle with a daughter desperate to rebel against a life eerily isolated from the outside world.

Now and then figures appear at the front door to inject this dull household with a flash of colour and life – lifting the spirits, of the audience at least, if only for a moment. Hugh, played by David Horovitch, is a jolly old chap with a barking laugh who speaks entirely in absurd cliches, while Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham overbear as Dorothy’s glamorous, gabbling friends Gertrude and Muriel. Yet for all people claim to care, we watch as this family slips from the grasp and gaze of observers, and despite these uplifting moments the overriding feeling of the play is utter loneliness.

The production also explores the perennial issue of the generation gap at a time of rapid social change and liberation. The friends hold forth on the achievements and excesses of their own offspring, putting a brave face on the fact they’ve been left behind by changing times: “You’re a man of the future, I’m a man of the past”, Hugh recalls remarking gleefully. Yet if the teenager was invented in the 1950s, no-one told Dorothy. Her inability to understand the ferocity of emotion that issues forth from her daughter forms the core of the play, and Ruby Bentall is fantastic as Victoria, saying very little yet creating a climate of fear wherever she goes with her instantaneous mood swings and vicious insults.

The pristine ‘50s suburban lounge within whose walls the play unfolds is a perfect museum, where every detail creates the world of stifling propriety in which its inhabitants dwell. Alison Chitty’s design is beautifully bland, adding to the sense that seasons, fashions, governments and universes could change outside and the only thing that would alter in this house would be the flowers in a vase. This feeling is compounded by the episodic nature of the scenes, some barely a few breaths long, and the dull monotony and eventual predictability of the play embodies the boredom of its protagonists’ lives. This play could so easily start to drive you mad. It may well be meant to.

The dialogue too offers very little – but behind Dorothy’s glassy stare or Edwin’s oblivious passivity, what is unspoken becomes deafening. In contrast to the effusive joviality and gossip of their friends, the family’s conversation is stilted – the siblings’ real communion achieved through quiet shared song and a gentle ‘chin-chin’. Dorothy and Edwin are people for whom propriety and reserve mean emotions have long remained unexplored, with devastating consequences.

Grief shows that in those times when we are least able to express ourselves, the slightest thing can become most eloquent of all. So a hand proffered over the back of a sofa or a simple toast become laden with meaning and emotion. With the more explosive exchanges taking place off stage, you are left staring into the eyes of those left behind. What you see will remain with you for a long time after.


Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.

Grief Show Info

Directed by Mike Leigh

Cast includes Lesley Manville, Ruby Bentall, Sam Kelly, David Horovitch, Marion Bailey, Wendy Nottingham, Dorothy Duffy




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.