Pity the poor marketing people at the National Theatre. You can imagining them coaxing him. “Come on Mike luv, get your finger out. We need a title. We have to produce a poster. We can’t call it A New Play by Mike Leigh. That’s what we called it last time.”
With Leigh’s “living as the character for months” working methods with actors, one suppose titles are the last thing on his mind and knowing the entire run was already sold out did they need one at all?
Yet a title – Grief – and a typographic poster solution reminiscent of a hammer were eventually found. Was Leigh going to be banging his gloomy theme home? Things didn’t look promising.
But what else might have called it? Depression? Retirement? Nice Fifties Frocks? He must have been miffed that Tea and Sympathy was already taken.
Expect a lot of tea but not a huge amount of sympathy from the friends of Dorothy (Lesley Manville), but they try their best in their own funny ways. Surprising they still bother really, as she’s practically immobilised by grief, having been widowed in the war and presumably because she found out the title.
We’re in 1957 now and she’s not moving on. Her daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall channelling Harry Enfield’s Kevin) is reluctant to leave her bedroom and when she does she strops because she can’t have a duffle coat or a sherry. The Whingers have wisely and unsurprisingly never raised children and certainly don’t intend to start if fifteen year olds are really this moody. Her expressionless demeanour makes Mrs Danvers seem like Pollyanna; her attitude is piled higher than the average Old Compton Street newsagent can manage.
Could her mother’s condition be contagious?
Initially things were looking very grim. The wonderfully realised drabness of the forensically neat suburban sitting room (designer Alison Chitty) and doleful Talking Heads music between the shortish scenes sets the tone. Dorothy’s brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) lives there too. He is on the verge of retirement and seems frozen by the malaise too.
You wouldn’t really expect there to be many laughs amongst the drear but remarkably there are. These come mainly in the shape of Edwin’s terminally chirpy doctor friend Hugh (David Horovitch) who seems to have stumbled in from a well-written sitcom. Then there are Dorothy’s old pals from her days working on a switchboard – Muriel (Wendy Nottingham) and Gertrude (Marion Bailey). All three are hilarious and their scenes make you feel as if you’ve thrust your chest out of the window and inhaled deeply.
Wisely run through in two hours without interval the laughs are smartly interspersed amongst the boredom, the lack of communication and the pervading depressive pall. Leigh also directs to switch the moods without jarring. It’s a masterclass of the unsaid, though one thing we do yearn to say is “I think I’ll lie down for half an hour before sherry”. Ah, those were the days. Still are in the Whingers’ households.
The cast are pretty faultless. Manville makes her difficult character entirely plausible and Kelly is extraordinarily subtle, his almost paralysed reaction at the end of the play saves it from its over-melodramatic ending.
Leigh is back on form, well for Phil at least. It took 24 hours before he discovered there was a rare Whingers schism. If only Andrew’s own boredom and lack of communication could be this engaging.