Unfortunately only memorable for the wrong reasons.
Mike Leigh’s Grief is an interestingly self-aware play to choose to put on in Cambridge. Anything dealing with middle-class repression will be well-received, and the audience certainly represented this, being comprised of appropriately shabby arts students. This may be why the play felt deeply inauthentic and was ultimately a missed opportunity for a good cast let down by a confused concept.
This production seemed to want to portray different manifestations of grief through a series of internal vignettes centering around Dorothy, a weary housewife whose husband died in the war. She lives with her reserved brother Edwin, and apathetic daughter Victoria, and their household is visited by a variety of eccentric family friends. Victoria, played by Eve Delaney, held the piece together. She was magnetic on stage, her performance of a frustrated teenager’s descent into depression utterly convincing and genuinely moving. Louis Norris deserves special mention for his portrayal of the ‘old boy’ doctor, Hugh, providing much needed comic relief.
However, neither of them were on stage for long enough to balance the over-reliance on stereotypes that reduced the impact of the increasingly troubled family. No one in particular seemed to actually be grieving much, except for some exaggeratedly mournful sighs at irrelevant intervals which ironically undercut the intended subtlety of the play.
It also wasn’t clear whether the audience were supposed to be laughing at or with the characters, or whether Grief was supposed to be funny at all. Some lines fell flat, others were wonderfully delivered but with no general sense of timing and no pauses given for laughter, meaning key interactions were drowned out.
The claustrophobic nature of the 1950s was convincingly represented by the staging. Deciding to have all the action take place in one drab living room was a good call, and whoever suggested to have the looming staircase at the back of the stage deserves credit for somehow managing to introduce some tension into the play, as the disconnection between Victoria’s life upstairs and Dorothy’s contrasted life downstairs was a clever way of showing the family’s progressive dysfunction that sadly didn’t manifest itself in the action.
The pace was stilted, with overly long scene changes for the rearrangement of flowers that seemed to have no clear purpose even being onstage, and the sight of a middle-aged man with a limp running offstage during a change somewhat broke the immersion and lessened the force of the climax. Hopefully, these are issues that can be attributed to opening night and the awkwardness will be smoothed out as the run continues, but the lack of any real drive behind this lacklustre performance will, I believe, unfortunately not change.
Grief is a prime example of style over substance let down by a simplistic interpretation of the script and a focus on artistic statement rather than engaging drama.