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A CurtainUp London London Review

I said, "Geoffrey what exactly is a computer?" and his explanation lasted all the way through lunch and most of supper! — Hugh
Lesley Manville as Dorothy and Sam Kelly as Edwin
(Photo: John Haynes)
Mike Leigh’s latest play is a 1950s detailed few months in the life of war widow Dorothy (Lesley Manville), her bachelor brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and her excessively stroppy teenage, 15 year old, daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall), in Surrey. Like a rif, the scenes from the play repeat much of the same action.

Before supper Dorothy and Edwin will have a glass of sherry, she drinks the pale kind, he the tawny variety, and they may sing a Cole Porter duet together like "Goodnight Sweetheart". Dorothy, looking flustered, will apologise to everyone for not taking off her pinny before coming into the sitting room. Victoria will come in, be rude to her mother and leave slamming doors, except that the sound of door slamming is not quite substantial enough to be a genuine 1930s semi door but something less noisy and part of a stage set. Thank goodness however for the door slamming because without it I fear I might have nodded off.

Some visitors brighten the play momentarily: David Horovitch is Hugh the animated doctor who laughs uproariously at his own jokes and boasts about his clever son. Marion Bailey gives a superb performance as Dorothy’s former workmate Gertrude, Garrulous Gertie, who talks non stop and is so full of herself, her son and her holidays. Wendy Nottingham plays the third ex-telephonist Muriel who prattles and preens in the latest fashions. Completing the cast is Dorothy Duffy as Maureen the Irish cleaner who will clean Dorothy’s house three times a week. I couldn’t quite tie in the three times a week cleaner with the telephonist class and a widow strapped for cash. On reflection the telephonist job was probably middle class women helping with the wartime effort.

This study of repression and the 1950s runs for two hours without a much needed break as the ennui of home life in 1957 is conveyed to the audience. The scenes are very short and are punctuated with the ’cello. It must be the week of the ’cello between scenes (see my review of Broken Glass, although the Mike Leigh music is altogether more poignant and pleasant. The play will end like a Chekhov with melodrama. Although rather contrived it is mercifully played off stage like a Greek tragedy.

The performances are pitch perfect. Lesley Manville is a director’s dream as she conveys the slightest directorial intent. She appears apologetic, vague, self effacing, diffident with a nervous laugh, except when it comes to laying down the law about when Victoria may have a glass of sherry. I adored Sam Kelly’s affectionate portrayal of the long term employee whose retirement silver salver has his name spelt wrongly on the engraving. Dorothy would like it to be fixed but resignedly Edwin accepts the error.

The message is that after 40 years’ loyal employment they cannot even be bothered to spell his name correctly and he is past caring. Ruby Bentall just has to be excessively unreasonable as Victoria, flounce a lot and refusing to go out with her mother and uncle to the restaurant for the planned meal on her sixteenth birthday and exploding at the slightest provocation or none at all. Marion Bailey as the insensitive Gertrude finishes everyone’s sentences for them and Wendy Nottingham’s Muriel is entirely self absorbed and vain. Alison Chitty’s sitting room (or should that be lounge?) boxed set is in period with a glimpse of the hallway and staircase beyond in the 1930s built semi with a bay window.

Maybe Leigh’s point is the air of depression which hangs over the house since the death of Victor in the war, whose photo is framed above the bookcase. I never saw anyone reading a book or listening to the radio. I can’t remember the hall telephone ringing and despite it being 1957, television doesn’t seem to have invaded this semi-detached home. I don’t know any teenager who would not have listened to popular music on the radio but all we heard was the ’cello.

I couldn’t call this a fun evening in the theatre. It left me wishing that Mike Leigh had given the talented cast a bit more to work with because Grief left me wishing for the action of a play by Samuel Beckett.

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Written and directed by Mike Leigh

Starring: Lesley Manville, Sam Kelly, David Horovitch, Marion Bailey, Ruby Bentall
With: Wendy Nottingham, Dorothy Duffy
Designed by Alison Chitty
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Music: Gary Yershon
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours without an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 28th January 2012 day seats only as sold out
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th September 2011 matinee performance at The Cottesloe, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube:Waterloo)

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