Writer: Keith Waterhouse
Director: Tom Littler
Reviewer: Nathanael Kent
The Public Reviews Rating:
It is rare for actors to return to a role they have previously played, especially in a different production, but Penelope Keith has done just that in this new revival of Keith Waterhouse’s play, based on his novel of the same name, Good Grief.
June Pepper (Keith) is a recently bereaved widow whose late husband, Sam, was editor of a daily tabloid. Whilst it is clear that Sam is never far from her mind – June delivers constant asides to the audience, as if we are Sam, a dramatic technique which feels overused by Waterhouse – she is nevertheless determined to carry on with life.
It is a study of grief, and how others, including close family such as her step-daughter Pauline (an excellent Flora Montgomery), respond to that. June does not want constant help and support; “it’s a bereavement I’ve suffered, not a stroke” she says, in response to Pauline trying to cook for her. Yet she does want company, so much so she goes out of her way to strike up a friendship with a chap who is wearing Sam’s suit, fresh from Oxfam- hence the name she affords him of ‘The Suit’.
June also has to adjust to having new responsibilities, such as renewing house insurance or maintaining the mower, and there are times where it seems she emotionally cannot cope. Waterhouse’s writing makes these moments truly affecting, yet still amusing – she buys back Sam’s dressing gown, for example – showing that laughter can still exist in even the most tragic of times.
Keith first played the part of June in the 1998 world premiere production and this second foray has no doubt helped Keith reach the depth of emotion, and warmth of humour, which she does in her superb performance. It’s no exaggeration to say that it is her show, something which is highlighted by the fact that the supporting roles – notably that of Eric, a former colleague of Sam’s – are somewhat underwritten and so the focus and energy of the piece lie with Keith’s character. That said, Christopher Ravenscroft is charming as ‘The Suit’, and the strengthening of his and June’s relationship is very touching, even if it resolves in a bordering on farcical manner. It seems as if Waterhouse is trying for too many laughs here- the joy of the piece, in the first act especially, is that the humour is not forced, but rather comes from the anecdotes and witticisms which crop up in conversation.
Tom Littler’s direction feels heavy handed, though it is not helped by Simon Kenny’s overly fussy design. The production would benefit hugely from being in a more intimate space, but thankfully Penelope Keith manages to fill even the cavernous Marlowe auditorium, and the play is worth seeing for her performance alone. It proves a perfectly enjoyable evening, but one leaves the theatre feeling it could’ve been more than that.