In Good Grief, Keith Waterhouse – novelist, scriptwriter and newspaper columnist – presents a view of widowhood and of life that hits home with sharp observations, witty dialogue and a few ‘out-of-the-blue’ shocks.
Action takes place in the decent-sized, floral-wallpapered house of newly widowed June Pepper and in a pub created by shifting the house’s central staircase to allow a pub corner seating arrangement to slide on. On this first night in a new theatre, this shift was not always smooth, and backstage movements through one of the set windows were a distraction for some members of the audience. The period is not particularly obvious until the set transition / pub background music by such as Deacon Blue, Enya, Beautiful South and Marc Almond suddenly forces us back decades. The story, though, could easily be happening now.
June Pepper – Penelope Keith reprising the role following its initial tour in 1998 – keeps a journal (as requested by her late newspaper editor husband) in her own way, a device which allows easy talking to the audience to reveal her thoughts. We see her first after the funeral and memorial services, then going on to deal with her husband’s effects, his adult daughter and one of his former colleagues, as well as trying to find a new life for herself now that she is no longer part of a couple. One of her husband’s suits given to charity leads to a new acquaintance, played by Christopher Ravenscroft with a sincerity and strangely unassuming, non-descript charm that creates an intriguingly ambiguous character.
Keith herself carries the show with style, and – while losing some lines to laughs, and dealing with a few technical hiccups – it is she who brings any feeling of warmth to the piece. For Waterhouse’s script, with its dry humour and clever remarks, while offering a feel of honesty about what people think but are unlikely to say, does not really offer as much poignancy as one might expect, nor are the characters rounded enough to elicit deep responses. The smarmy newspaper colleague (Jonathan Firth) certainly draws disdain and disgust, but his motivation is given very much on a surface level and the same superficial explanation of character, provided in almost a clumsy fashion, is given to the step-daughter Pauline (Flora Montgomery). The discovery June anticipates and finally makes does not bring any great plot satisfaction and can seem somewhat contrived to help create the ending.
Good Grief is a strong play with regard to observation and humour, and has complexity of character on an intellectual level, though it lacks some layers that could draw greater emotional responses. The actors, once they were in sync with one another, gave assured performances, with Keith and Ravenscroft adding their own attractive qualities and so lifting their roles. Still fairly early on in its tour, Good Grief can rise above its technical hitches, and is already attractive in its punchy lines and situations, providing plenty of laughs, well-delivered by its cast. If that is all you are looking for, consider it a four star show.
Good Grief runs at the King’s Theatre; 1-6 October 2012, 19:30 (21:45); matinees 3 & 6 October, 14:30. Tickets and further information are available from the King’s website
Review by Danielle Farrow.