I knew absolutely nothing about Mike Leigh's show at the National Theatre before buying a ticket. It didn't even have a title when I bought the ticket. Right before it opened they finally gave it a title: Grief. It starred Lesley Manville and Sam Kelly.
For a plot recap: It is the 1950's. Everyone is repressed. They wear hats. The ladies lunch. Every afternoon they have sherry. They avoid talking about anything meaningful. Such is the bourgeois middle class family who have lost a family member in the war. Manville and Kelly play brother and sister who live together. Manville is raising a hellion of teen daughter and Kelly is an old office clerk bachelor. Every day is as the day before and every day the same after. Until one day (very late in the play) it is not.
Basically the play is a series of repetitive scenes showing that time may move forward but these people do not. Things may be changing around them but their quotidian routines are hardly ruffled--or more appropriately they are incapable of adjusting as time moves forward. Honestly I was bored silly. I could see how this would work on film where a director could, with the camera, lead you to the subtle differences between the days and where repetition can be more formal and guided. But on stage, where you as the audience member have to go searching for the nuanced changes (if there are any) I found myself struggling. It was too much beneath the surface for me. I didn't particularly care enough about the characters to indulge in the exercise either. Manville and her teen daughter fight and argue and both are dissatisfied with the outcome. I just didn't care a bit about them. There was no entree point for me into their grief. They came off as unlikeable and shrill.
The one saving grace for me was Sam Kelly. His quiet and sad performance was so incredible. For some reason I could connect more with his plight. The man seeking
peace in a house of conflict. The man who just wants to play a game of
chess with his friend but has to put away his things when his sister
takes over the room. A man with no place. He's not the man of the house but he's the only one they have.
There is a moment where his heart is broken and his exterior shell cracks. That one moment where his composure is lost and his pain is revealed is breathtaking. I would say that the play was almost worth seeing for his performance alone and his journey.